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Sorry? For What?

August 13, 2009

IBD      6 Aug 09

Foreign Policy: We’re glad former President Bill Clinton returned from North Korea with two American journalists who had been wrongly imprisoned there. But apologizing sets a very bad diplomatic precedent.

Who wouldn’t be happy seeing the tearful, smiling faces of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the journalists who were nabbed by Kim Jong Il’s security forces while on a reporting mission on the China border?

The secretive state nabbed them five months ago, and a government tribunal sentenced them to 12 years of hard labor. In North Korea, hard labor means hard labor. Had the sentences been carried out, one or both might have died in custody.

Even as we rejoice at their release, supposedly brokered by Clinton, we wonder what it means for the future. We have just rewarded North Korea — once again — for behaving badly. It’s not that country’s fault if we offer only carrots and never any sticks.

Yes, we’re glad for Ling and Lee. But make no mistake: They weren’t prisoners; they were hostages. This weakens the U.S. in any future talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons.

Even by picking Clinton for this “private, humanitarian mission,” as the Washington Post called it, the U.S. seemed to be sending a not-so-subtle signal to Kim that the U.S. is ready to appease him.

For in addition to being a former commander in chief, Clinton is the husband of the current secretary of state. And his own secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was the first to visit North Korea.

Far from private, this has White House fingerprints all over it. As the AP noted: “State media said Clinton apologized on behalf of the women and relayed President Barack Obama’s gratitude.”

Groveling, anyone? Kim now knows the current U.S. leader can be blackmailed — if he didn’t know it before. That’s what made President Clinton so appropriate for this mission. It was from Clinton that Kim first learned this lesson.

In 1994, recall, Clinton sent former President Carter — see a pattern? — to North Korea to negotiate that country’s denuclearization. Carter returned with a deal similar in its sycophancy and cynicism to the one Neville Chamberlain brought back from Munich.

In exchange for billions of dollars in food aid and even help for its “peaceful” nuclear power effort, North Korea vowed to behave and decommission its nuclear weapons program.

No sooner had the ink dried than North Korea began cheating. During the Clinton years, the U.S. and the U.N. signed three agreements with North Korea. North Korea broke its word each time.

Commander in chief? Clinton acted like appeaser in chief. We never learned. The deal making continued into the 2000s — culminating in the Six-Party Talks, which concluded in 2007.

Again, Pyongyang broke its word and bought more time with its outrageous behavior. Today it has a burgeoning missile program and nuclear weapons, plus has sold that technology to other rogue states, including Iran. Rather than being conciliatory, the U.S. should have been righteously angry. Instead, U.S. weakness with North Korea is tempting others.

In Iran, just this week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s security forces arrested three young American journalists for an alleged border violation. Coincidence? Probably not. It follows the arrest earlier this year of U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi, who was released in May — just before Iran’s elections.

Clearly, Iran has learned the same valuable lesson as Kim — threaten captured Americans with harsh punishment, use them as pawns, then watch us grovel for the favor of their release.

Unfortunately, this weakness will diminish any leverage we might have in nuclear talks with North Korea or Iran.

That, in turn, ultimately places the U.S., our friend Israel and our European allies in danger. Some deal.

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