Former President Bill Clinton is in North Korea today. His visit comes more than eight weeks after two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were sentenced to 12 years in prison for allegedly crossing into the country illegally.
Victor Cha was director of Asian affairs at the White House during the Bush administration. He visited Pyongyang with Governor Bill Richardson back in 2007. Cha spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s “American Morning” Tuesday.
Kiran Chetry: Drawing on your experience and extensive knowledge of North Korea, what might be going on in these negotiations with Korean leaders and our former President Bill Clinton?
Victor Cha: Well, I think for the North Koreans … receiving a former head of state gives them a lot of face, political face, which is important to the country and to their leadership. I would imagine that the former president is there solely for the purpose of trying to bring back these two Americans. And he's probably engaging in discussions with the Foreign Ministry as well as with some members of the party, perhaps even the dear leader himself to secure the release of these Americans as a humanitarian gesture by the North Korean government.
Chetry: We’ve heard the rhetoric ratcheted up recently, the long-range missile firings, the censure of North Korea by the United Nations, nuclear talks, pulling out of the six-party talks. What does it say about North Korea’s influence on the world stage if they're finally getting a former U.S. president to visit them, but it's only after detaining two American journalists?
Cha: Well, I mean it doesn't say a lot in terms of their reputation around the world, clearly. You know, but for them, former President Clinton is very credible for them because he as president considered very seriously going to North Korea in his last few days or weeks in office. So, for the North Koreans to receive him, I think they see that as a really big deal for them. And hopefully that will be enough to get them – get the two Americans released. But overall, in terms of their reputation around the world, it certainly doesn't do them any good.
Chetry: I guess what I'm also wondering and what some of us are wondering is what will they get? Will they get rewarded, perhaps, or get some agreements in exchange for the release of these two that many in the world stage say were unfairly detained?
Cha: I think that, you know, they will probably want some sort of apology from the two women. In past practice North Koreans have always asked for some sort of apology as a way to save face for themselves. They may want some compensation for the fact that they held these two women in a state guest house for over five months, which ends up being a lot of money for North Koreans. You know, they may ask for something like that. But I don't know if they'll link this directly to the nuclear negotiations. Having said that, if President Clinton comes out with these two women and he says that they're ready to negotiate on the nuclear side that would put a lot of pressure on the Obama administration to reengage and try to move this process forward even as U.N. sanctions continue on the North Korean regime.
Chetry: What sort of message is this sending from the Obama administration? [Bill Clinton] is the former president but he's also the spouse of the current secretary of state.
Cha: Right. Right. If you talk to U.S. government officials about this, they say very clearly this is a private humanitarian mission. It was requested by the families of Euna and Laura and that there are no U.S. government officials going. Having said all that, he's the former president and he's the husband of the secretary of state. So this not being anything related to the U.S. government is kind of difficult to believe. And I think the North Koreans understand that and that's one of the reasons why they were so eager to receive the president.
Chetry: And here's something we want to be careful about it. But it is something that we were wondering here in the newsroom. Investigative reporter Lisa Ling, many know her as a reporter with National Geographic. She's the sister of Laura Ling. She entered North Korea back in 2006 for a National Geographic documentary and she was posing as a member of a medical team. This was titled "Undercover in North Korea." She exposed some of the hardships of living in North Korea. Do you think Kim Jong Il was aware of this documentary and did that perhaps impact the treatment and detainment of her sister?
Cha: Yeah I think the North Koreans are pretty well aware of everything that's written and filmed about them outside of the country. So I would not doubt that they knew about this earlier video. And I think that the reason they took these two women was they were trying to send a message to everybody that they don't want journalists snooping on their border trying to write stories about people leaving their country. And I think they're trying to use these two reporters to send a very strong message to the world that they don't want folks sniffing on their border. So this wasn't so much, you know, something that they were trying to do related to the nuclear problem, per se. I think they had a very clear message that they were trying to send to people about staying away from their border.