Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a surprise visit to North Korea and met its reclusive leader on Tuesday to win the freedom for two jailed American journalists. Though the Obama administration insists it was a private, humanitarian visit, some critics see it as the U.S. softening its stance on its North Korea policy.
This may be the end of an ordeal for two journalists, but President Bill Clinton's visit resulting in their release marks the beginning of a much larger challenge between the U.S. and North Korea.
Clinton's visit came at a time when the U.S. and the international community have been pressuring North Korea, imposing strict sanctions after the communist state conducted a nuclear test, fired ballistic missiles and abandoned six-party talks on nuclear disarmament.
Asian and Pacific affairs expert Peter Brookes warns that Clinton's visit could be seen as the U.S. softening its policy on North Korea. "There's no penalty for the things that they've done. We could get into a situation here of a moral hazard by rewarding bad behavior. We are going to be getting more of it," he said.
But East Asia Affairs analyst Dennis Wilder says the U.S. had no choice. "I think the decision to allow him to go was the right one because it got the journalists home. And, as a private citizen on a humanitarian mission, that was very good," he said.
Wilder says North Korea has been looking for a way to ease the pressure created by the sanctions and used journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee as hostages. "No question this is a bargaining chip. He never had any intention of putting these two journalist in a gulag even though he gave them a 12 year sentence," he said.
The Obama administration has been distancing itself from Clinton's trip, insisting that it was not an official White House visit. "We have successfully completed a humanitarian mission. It was a private mission," she said.
But Wilder says that Bill Clinton's ties to the administration are hard to ignore. "Considering that Bill Clinton is not only a member of the Democratic party, a (former) president of the United States and the husband of the current secretary of state, so there are plenty of linkages there that make him not just your ordinary private citizen," he said.
Critics say the U.S. has given North Korea the two things it has demanded: a visit from a high level dignitary; and, an apology from the administration.
Last month Secretary Clinton gave that apology at a town hall Meeting. "I think everyone is very sorry that it happened."
There are no diplomatic relations between North Korea and the U.S. The last time an American official visited North Korea was during Clinton's presidency, nine years ago.
Experts say North Korea is trying to reconnect with the U.S. now that a new president is in the White House. The international community will be watching to see how the Obama administration will deal with the communist state and whether the U.S. will continue its hardline against North Korea.