The Roots of Bill Clinton's North Korea Trip

The White House today described Bill Clinton's surprise visit to North Korea as a "solely private" effort to secure the release of two captive American journalists. But the real story behind the trip very likely goes back to the public diplomacy that then-president Clinton was conducting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il nearly 10 years ago, during Clinton's final months in office.

At the time, the United States and North were tantalizingly close to a deal to stop all North Korean missile exports, and for Pyongyang to cease development, testing, and deployment of missiles. In exchange, the North would get full diplomatic recognition, billions in aid from Washington and Tokyo, and, above all, a visit to Pyongyang by the U.S. president. That's according to an account of the talks given to me by Wendy Sherman, a former senior aide to secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and other officials.

Sherman and other North Korea specialists say Kim was plainly eager for the Clinton visit, which would have given his regime the stamp of legitimacy and a guarantee of security the North Korean leader has long sought. At a secret meeting in Washington in October 2000 between Clinton and Marshal Cho Myong Rok, who was second only to Kim in North Korea, Cho had delivered Kim's personal invitation to the president to visit Pyongyang. Albright's historic visit to Pyongyang a week later was an attempt to secure a deal that would justify such a presidential visit. While in North Korea, the secretary appeared with Kim at a stadium spectacle, during which a mass of performers flipped colored placards that together depicted Kim's Taepodong I missile taking off for its first test in 1998. According to Sherman, who was there, an ebullient and apparently hopeful Kim turned to Albright and said, "That was the first launch of that missile, and it will be the last."

The moment marked a high point for diplomacy between the two countries, a culmination of spotty talks that had been going on since 1994, when Clinton came to an Agreed Framework deal with Pyongyang. Under that 1994 pact, Clinton obtained a commitment to freeze plutonium reprocessing in exchange for aid and a civilian nuclear plant. Notably, that agreement began with a visit by former president Jimmy Carter, which was also described by the White House at the time as private.

But the Clinton-Kim missile talks foundered over Pyongyang's demands that smaller Nodong missiles, used as a deterrent against South Korea and Japan, be fully exempted from the missile moratorium, and Clinton grew otherwise occupied with a final effort at Mideast peace (which also failed). The Clinton visit to Pyongyang never happened, and several months later Kim Jong Il discovered that the new U.S. president, George W. Bush, had very different ideas about relations with him. Bush abruptly cut off all diplomacy and made clear that he had no intention of legitimizing Kim's regime by talking with it. In 2002, during a private diatribe to Republican senators, Bush called Kim a hateful "pygmy" who behaved like "a spoiled child at a dinner table." The remarks and other personal cracks by Bush were reported later in NEWSWEEK and other Western publications.

Since then, relations between Washington and Pyongyang have been ugly at best, and locked in a grim standoff. In 2006 and 2007, the two sides came close to a deal to halt the North's nuclear program, but the talks were derailed again by Pyongyang's refusal to disclose full details about its bomb-building and nuclear-fuel efforts. The tensions have culminated in recent months in a second nuclear test and a series of missile firings by the North, along with the arrest of the two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor.

Neither the White House nor the State Department is saying anything about Clinton's visit this week to free them. The Obama administration, in response to the North Korean nuclear test, has marshaled new sanctions against Pyongyang at the United Nations, and there is evidence that the ailing Kim Jong Il has been taking a harder line toward Washington, perhaps to shore up the credentials of his son and putative successor.

But the Clinton visit still marks a big moment for Kim. It's the sort of recognition he's been eager to have for more than a decade. Bill Clinton has been all but absent from the news since Barack Obama took office and his wife, Hillary, became America's top diplomat. The former president will finally have his crack at dealmaking in Pyongyang.