The world has been riveted by Bill Clinton’s dramatic rescue of two journalistic damsels from the clutches of Kim Jong Il, the diabolical and unpredictable North Korean despot. One cannot help but be relieved for the two women and their families and touched by the moving family reunions.
Yet even though the happy outcome tugs at our sentimental side, we should be asking whether the rescue was good public policy. Several hard questions arise:
1. Is the U.S. government responsible for bailing out American journalists, business people, or tourists who do stupid or risky things in dangerous and autocratic foreign countries?
Although Bill Clinton is a private citizen, he is a former president and his wife Hillary is the nation’s secretary of state and top diplomat. Therefore, any visit by Bill Clinton had the tacit approval of the Obama administration, and everyone knew it. The U.S. government has been bailing out a lot of people lately, but these journalists knew that doing a story about human trafficking in autocratic North Korea was very risky. Similarly, several hikers carelessly strayed over the Kurdistan-Iran border into Iran and have been detained. Although the families of all these people understandably want the U.S. government to do everything possible to get them back, and the U.S. government may have a responsibility to at least make diplomatic approaches to do so, should it be expected to pay ransom — in the case of the journalists, a coveted visit by an charismatic former president? And where does the government’s responsibility end? Someday, such inflated expectations of the government’s role could allow such irresponsible private hostages to drag the United States into a needless war.
2. Is it wise to reward bad behavior by any cantankerous regime, especially one with a track record like North Korea’s in which it regularly acts obnoxiously to win more favors from the United States and its neighbors?
North Korea’s bizarre leader has recently fired off missiles and conducted a second nuclear test to test the new Obama administration and enhance his bargaining position in the world’s attempt to negotiate away the regime’s nuclear weapons program. Then to win the release of the journalists, Kim specifically demanded and received a prestigious visit by Clinton. Next, he will probably be looking to receive even more in exchange for pardoning and setting the journalists free and will be irate if he doesn’t get it.
Any child psychologist will tell you that rewarding a child’s tantrum will only cause more tantrums. For some time under previous administrations, including that of George W. Bush and Clinton himself, the U.S. has been reinforcing bad behavior on the part of Kim by giving North Korea more attention and aid whenever the country misbehaves. Such pay offs only increase future bad behavior to get more goodies from the West.
3. What policy should the U.S. pursue toward North Korea?
All of this doesn’t mean we need to assume a belligerent policy toward North Korea — as advocated by neoconservatives — because backing a paranoid, nuclear-armed country into a corner is dangerous. A child psychologist would recommend rewarding good behavior, while simply ignoring bad behavior. The U.S. could offer a "grand bargain" of full diplomatic recognition for North Korea and the end of world ostracism through the termination of economic sanctions, all in exchange for elimination of the North’s nuclear weapons program. Given the historical track record of the West’s rewarding North Korean bad behavior, however, this may no longer be a viable option. Too much water has flowed under the bridge. Instead, the United States should probably just accept that North Korea will be a nuclear weapons state and focus on deterring the regime from using such weapons against the U.S. — the threat of incineration by the world’s most powerful nuclear arsenal should suffice — or selling such technology abroad. Otherwise, treating Kim like a child, the U.S. should simply ignore North Korea and its belligerent posturing. Eventually, such behavior will likely attenuate.
Doing nothing is doing something and is much better than the ill-advised policy the United States currently has toward North Korea.