As soon as the images of former President Clinton alongside North Korean leader Kim Jong Il appeared, it seemed certain that freedom was at hand for two American journalists captured in March and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor on charges of hostile acts and entering the country illegally. Surely Clinton would not have agreed to make the trip to Pyongyang without a prior deal for their return. And yet this was North Korea, notoriously unpredictable, sometimes underhanded, and apparently holding the reporters for purposes of political blackmail. Anything could go wrong. Fortunately it didn't, and we are thrilled with the pardon and release of Californians Euna Lee and Laura Ling.
Right-wing critics wasted no time in attacking the former president's visit as rewarding hostage-taking and conferring legitimacy on a rogue regime. Although the White House described the trip as "solely a private mission," Clinton would not have undertaken it without a blessing from President Obama, or at least from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- his wife. Because North Korea desperately wants recognition from the United States, critics argue that the meeting was a big win for the dictator. It's possible that it was of some benefit to Kim, but it also was of value to the United States, which must protect its citizens as well as pursue strategic goals. This was not a zero-sum game.
The ailing Kim is trying to hand off power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, and like the country's recent nuclear tests and missile launches, the Clinton visit provided propaganda to demonstrate the strength of the family dynasty to those who might challenge it from within. But Clinton won the women's release, apparently without concessions from the U.S. government beyond a visit from a former president who is now a private citizen. There is ample precedent for such diplomacy in former President Carter's trip there to urge a freeze on nuclear-fuel reprocessing and in New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's visit to recover remains of American servicemen killed in the Korean War.
Beyond the journalists' release, and perhaps more important, Clinton got the chance to look the reclusive Kim in the eye, to judge his state of mind and health and, quite likely, to hear firsthand Kim's demands in exchange for nuclear disarmament. That by no means suggests that the United States has abandoned U.N. sanctions, its allies in the neighborhood or its policy regarding the denuclearization of North Korea. It means that there was an opportunity to listen to Kim and to convey information to the Obama administration, which has offered time and again to engage with its enemies.