Former US President Bill Clinton paid a surprise visit to Pyongyang, capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), from 4-5 August 2009.
The immediate aim of his visit was to request the Korean people to pardon and send home on humanitarian grounds two young Asian-American women journalists who had illegally entered the DPRK in order to gather information and to make a hostile documentary for a US television channel co-founded by Al Gore, who had served as Clinton’s vice president. The two women had been arrested shortly after entering Korea and sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment, reflecting the hostile relations between the USA and the DPRK, and the threat posed by the former to the latter.
Following meetings with the DPRK leader Comrade Kim Jong Il, including a dinner which extended over several hours, the USA’s request was acceded to and Clinton left for home with the two journalists the next day.
Clinton thus became the second former president of the USA to visit the DPRK for talks with that country’s top leaders. In 1994, during his own first term of office, former President Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang for talks with the late President Kim Il Sung.
One important difference was that, whereas Carter’s visit was, at its inception at least, his private initiative, and the Clinton White House, was at first decidedly lukewarm about his mission, in the case of Clinton’s own visit, the initiative actually came from the incumbent administration of Barack Obama, which, despite its transparent and entirely unconvincing protestations that this was a private affair of the former president, with no implications for broader DPRK-US relations and the various matters at issue between the two countries, especially the nuclear issue, was actually intimately involved in every aspect of preparing the visit and in its aftermath.
In its 5 August report on the visit, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) noted:
“The DPRK visit of Clinton and his party will contribute to deepening the understanding between the DPRK and the US and building the bilateral confidence.”
Later in August, DPRK diplomats from the country’s UN mission in New York, in a rare foray beyond the 25-mile radius to which they are normally confined by the US authorities, visited the state of New Mexico at the invitation of its governor Bill Richardson, who has previously visited the DPRK. Besides political discussions with Governor Richardson, the diplomats also visited a number of businesses, as well as academic and research institutes, connected with renewable energy.
An important point to note about such visits is that they completely give the lie to the imperialist slanders that the DPRK is an isolated country. Not only does it maintain very close relations with socialist and other anti-imperialist countries, but even the most senior politicians of the most powerful imperialist nation are forced to seek out and petition the leaders of this small country of some 24 million people. Even some people in the working class movement, who should know better, would have us believe that Korea is cast into a corner because it resolutely defends its sovereignty, even to the extent of equipping itself with nuclear weapons. But again, the opposite is the case. The reason imperialism showers the DPRK with presidential envoys and not cluster bombs is precisely because the country can defend itself.
Following Clinton’s visit a number of positive signs have also appeared in the relations between the DPRK and south Korea, which had been in steady decline since the right wing regime of Lee Myung Bak came to power. On 16 August, Comrade Kim Jong Il had a long meeting with Hyon Jong Un, the chairperson of the Hyundai Group, the south Korean monopoly which has led the way in developing economic relations between the two parts of Korea. Following this meeting, the two sides agreed to resume and develop their cooperation in tourism, to develop the joint industrial zone in the north Korean city of Kaesong, and to resume the programme of reunions of families divided by the partition of the Korean nation.
Days later, a high level DPRK delegation travelled to the south Korean capital Seoul to pay tribute to Kim Dae Jung, the first democratic president of south Korea, who died on 18 August, and whose own historic visit to Pyongyang in 2000 had raised such high hopes among all the Korean people for national reconciliation and reunification.
An article in the Independent reluctantly conceded that the DPRK’s dual tactics of military preparedness and diplomatic flexibility were yielding impressive results:
“It was the arrest and conviction of the American journalists that precipitated Mr Clinton’s diplomacy. But it was the nuclear test…, with all the perils it menaced, that made a new dialogue with North Korea urgent.
“The test provoked what were called ‘unprecedented sanctions’ by the UN, ‘teeth that will bite’ according to the American ambassador to the UN, Susan Price. But the world was reminded how narrow its options regarding the hermit crab really are.”
The article went on to quote a report from the International Crisis Group, a think tank: “Getting North Korea back to talks will require significant changes in the way the portfolio is handled in Washington, including a high-level approach by the US,” and concluded:
“Now that new approach seems to be underway…Kim Jong Il is moving steadily towards that goal.” (‘Nobel laureate’s death sparks a diplomatic breakthrough’, 22 August 2009)
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