Last week's release of two American journalists from North Korea produced a pair of memorable images. There was the heartwarming scene of the women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, joyfully emerging from the plane in Southern California into the arms of their families, whom they hadn't seen in months. But before that, there was also a more ambiguous tableau: former president Bill Clinton sitting woodenly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in a Politburo-style group portrait.
The photos of Clinton with Kim were the price of Ling and Lee's safe return. Held since March, the two journalists were "a declining asset," blocking the possibility of any positive move in relations with Washington, says Scott Snyder, author of a book on North Korean negotiating strategies. Ready to give them up, North Korea's leaders took advantage of back-channel talks with the U.S. government to arrange a deal: a Clinton meet-and-greet in exchange for the journalists.
That may seem like a small price to pay. When the women were arrested, analysts speculated that they would be used as bargaining chips to get something substantial, like more favorable terms in negotiations on Pyongyang's nuclear program. But a photo op like that means a lot to the North Koreans, says Robert Gallucci, who negotiated with North Korea when he was a State Department official in the Clinton administration. "What they got, if nothing else, was the highest-profile person on the planet, with the possible exception of the current president," he says.
That will help solidify Kim's support among Pyongyang's ruling class at a time when his family's position is at a stress point. Kim, who is said to be ailing, is thought to be grooming his son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him. Being seen with Clinton will boost Kim's prestige, Snyder says. "Those pictures are going to be posted all over the country—every little village there is going to be a billboard with these pictures of Kim Jong Il standing next to Bill Clinton," he says. The visit was "a message to the North Korean public that Kim Jong Il is still a big man on the scene," he added. "At the very minimum, this would help to shore up Kim Jong Il among the elites."
The White House and Washington's North Korea watchers are hoping the pictures with Clinton and Kim are worth many thousands of words: Besides the women's release, the visit will provide crucial new information about North Korea. Clinton spoke at length with Kim, the first meeting of the "Dear Leader" with a high-profile American since Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang in 2000. Two bits of information will be especially valuable, Snyder says: a firsthand impression of Kim's health, and the North Koreans' position on how they want to move toward renewedU.S. relations.
Lee and Ling's saga is over, but its effect on U.S.-North Korean relations is yet to be seen.