Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il



In August 2009, Bill Clinton was dispatched to Pyongyang to secure the release of celebrity journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling. Each later sold the story of their journalistic incompetence and incarceration as a heroic adventure against North Korean injustice. This is not just me speaking. In Obama and China’s Rise, Jeff Bader offers up an acid assessment of the headaches these cases create for American diplomats:

“We all felt a sense of relief that the journalists, who had been mistreated, were safe and sound. We also felt considerable irritation at American innocents abroad who stumble into such situations as if they were in downtown LA and then expect to be saved, without regard to the damage they do to US national security interests. The possibility of repeat performances by other gullible or misguided Americans, putting us in a similar box, worried us, and rightly so, although subsequent incidents did not involve as 'valuable' a prize as Ling and Lee were.”

Thanks to Wikileaks—and David Straub (Stanford), who was on the mission—we now have a memcon of the meeting of Clinton and Kim Jong Il, and it provides a few historical details (for another take on the document and an embedded link to it, see Buzzfeed here). The main takeaway for me was the strong preference on the part of Kim Jong Il for high-level bilateral talks, but with at least some expressed uncertainty about whether the Six Party Talks could be saved.  

The setting of the meeting was not auspicious. In addition to being placed in a supplicant position by Lee and Ling, the Six Party Talks had fallen apart at the very end of the Bush administration. Although President Obama had signaled a willingness to resume talks, the North Korean regime responded with the launch of a three-stage “space launch vehicle” on April 5. The test was seen not only by the US but ultimately by China and Russia as a violation of UNSC 1718. Within hours of a UNSC Presidential Statement, North Korea “permanently” withdrew from the Six-Party Talks, declared all commitments under the talks null and void, and threatened to resume the reprocessing of spent fuel rods, pursue construction of a light-water reactor (LWR), and boost its nuclear deterrent. On May 25, the regime tested a nuclear device for the second time, and on June 12, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1874 imposing new sanctions.

Although Clinton stated clearly he did not have a mandate to negotiate, the visit still provided an opening. Reading off note cards, Kim Jong Il flattered Clinton for his willingness to engage North Korea, including through a condolence letter on the death of his father, the mutual Albright and Jo Myong Rok visits and Clinton’s consideration of a trip to Pyonyang at the end of his presidency. According to Kim Jong Il’s recounting, that trip was canceled by Clinton in a personal letter that said the contested election was to blame; later in the conversation, Clinton claimed that it was promises from Arafat with respect to the Middle East peace process that kept him in Washington.

With Bush, however, Kim noted that US-DPRK relations went to hell in a handbasket; the military-first policy was nothing but a defensive reaction to the hostile policy of the US. Yet Straub’s notes already reveal a crucial turn toward comfort with nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Il stated that with a turn in relations and “if a world free of nuclear weapons were realized,” then denuclearization could also move forward. In the meantime, Kim Jong Il expressed a willingness to offer a missile test moratorium, but the offer was nested in a resumption of bilateral talks. In a classic passive-aggressive move, Kim Jong Il noted that the Six Party Talks had not stopped the country’s testing, but bilateral talks during the Clinton era had. The message was clear: open a bilateral channel and we will give you a missile freeze.

Clinton held firm. He noted that the other four parties preferred a multilateral setting but that bilateral US-DPRK talks could take place within such a multilateral setting. He came back to this point in his concluding remarks, emphasizing the US need for relationships with China and Russia and how both South Korea and Japan could be helpful. Moreover, Clinton noted that in addition to his own visit and a proposed visit by Ambassador Stephen Bosworth (which occurred in December), Senator Kerry had expressed interest in coming to North Korea as well and could help with Congress. The message: you are getting bilateral talks. It appears from the document that despite the pitch for bilateral relations, Kim Jong Il expressed some uncertainty about how the DPRK would proceed with respect to the Six Party Talks and whether they could be saved.  

The rest is history. A return North Korea visit to the US following the Bosworth visit was effectively scuttled by the sinking of the Cheonan. But the dilemmas revealed by the memo—particularly with respect to how multilateral and bilateral talks might fit together—persist. 

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