The World from Berlin When Bill Met Il

Former US President Bill Clinton returns from North Korea Wednesday with two freed American journalists. German commentators wonder who really won this mini showdown and whether Clinton will be America's new nuclear negotiator with the unstable pariah state.


Former US President Bill Clinton is scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles on Wednesday with two formerly imprisoned female American journalists he picked up in North Korea after holding talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

The women -- Euna Lee, 36, and Laura Ling, 32 -- had been sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts" after having been arrested in March near China's border with North Korea. Kim pardoned the women and allowed them to be released. The journalists were there as part of an assignment for Current TV, which was founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

Clinton arrived in Pyongyang in a private plane on Tuesday morning, where he was greeted by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, who is also North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator. He then attended a banquet hosted by Kim. North Korean media sources reported that the two had held wide-ranging talks and that Clinton had delivered a message from President Obama, although White House sources have called the latter assertion "not true."

The journalists were freed after several months of negotiations between the two countries, whose relations have been aggravated by North Korea's restarting its nuclear program and testing long-range rockets. Clinton agreed to travel to Pyongyang as a private citizen after having been asked to do so by the reporters' families and Gore, a senior US official told the Associate Press. The news organization also quotes Daniel Sneider, the associate director of research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, say that Clinton "didn't go to negotiate this; he went to reap the fruits of negotiations."

In Wednesday's newspapers, German commentators debate who the real winner of this mini-showdown was and whether this actually signals that Clinton will be Obama's new pointman in negotiations aimed at controlling North Korea's nuclear program.

SPIEGEL ONLINE writes:

"This has been a great success for the Americans -- and presumably a very expensive one, too. It's still hard to tell what trade-offs Clinton carried with him in his bags. Was it a promise to provide the starving North Korea with food and oil? Or was it assurances that the US government would follow a milder course in the future that would ultimately grant diplomatic recognition to the North Korean regime?"

"The US government has called Clinton's mission 'private,' but that is nonsense. Doing so was just a way to save face in case things fell through and the North Koreans broke their promise to free the two journalists. No American -- and particularly not a former president and spouse of the secretary of state -- is going to 'privately' sit down at a table with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il without first getting the green light from the White House."

"Kim and his military got what they wanted, namely, for Washington to dispatch a high-ranking emissary. Now they'll be able to peddle Clinton's visit as the bowing down of its 'imperialist archenemy.' But the Americans have won more than just the journalists' freedom. We shouldn't underestimate the importance of the fact that Clinton sat across from the secretive Kim for a good bit. Clinton and his entourage were able to observe and draw conclusions about the man in the khaki outfit. They were able to see how sick he really is, how he speaks and how he moves. Those details will provide America with valuable keys for discerning his position in the North Korean military structure and whether he is truly in a position to keep his house in order."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Clinton's mission shows just how dangerous the United States believes that developments in North Korea to be. Kim Jong Il is visibly weak, and there are more and more credible reports claiming that he is terminally ill. Should he be forced to step down or even die, a power vacuum in North Korea could lead the entire Korean peninsula into a war made riskier by the fact that North Korea now has nuclear weapons. Other worrisome factors include that North Korea might not only sell its bomb-making know-how to others, but also even perhaps an explosive device or a so-called dirty bomb. There's no shortage of potential buyers on the world market."

"US relations with North Korea are much worse today (than they were during Clinton's presidency). Having conducted two nuclear tests and launched a number of test rockets, the regime has shown that it is waging its final battle for attention and assertiveness. North Korea is surrounded by prospering nations, it is led by an archaic ruler who continues to be frozen with fear -- and the country is in daily danger of collapsing from within as a result of the ongoing battle between various factions over who will succeed Kim. Clinton is not going to be able to help the regime see just how desperate its current situation is. But he can provide a jumpstart the frozen political process that might just help prevent the state from collapsing."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The fact that Pyongyang was able to drive the price for freeing the journalists so high can confidently be described as a victory for Kim Jong Il. Bill Clinton officially traveled there as merely a private citizen. But the fact that Kim was able to parade Clinton out and incorrectly claim that he had conveyed a private message from President Obama shows that this small state was able to hold a superpower ransom. Given these facts, it makes no sense for Washington to push for renewed negotiations with North Korea regarding its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang will never give up its sole trump card in the negotiations. And it won't be able to find hostages to take on the border every day.

Right-leaning Die Welt writes:

"This is obviously not just about two journalists. If it had just been about that, Bill Clinton wouldn't have been needed. The mere fact that Clinton was welcomed at Pyongyang's airport by the vice foreign minister clearly shows that Clinton has finally become his country's chief negotiator with North Korea regarding its nuclear weapons program."

"There's no doubt that Clinton's visit was meant as a way to gently feel out whether it is possible for President Obama to forge a new relationship between these two countries, which currently enjoy no diplomatic relations. The United States is right to try to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself to speak with North Korea. Doing so does not enhance the status of the miserable regime."

The financial daily Handelsblatt writes:

"The United States was not honoring North Korea by having its most prominent politician pay it a visit. In fact, Bill Clinton's trip is not a sign that America respects the regime any more than it did before it conducted nuclear tests in April. The former president was only trying to bring some jailed journalists home."

"If you look behind the façade, you'll see that Kim Jong Il's regime is weaker than ever. The United States knows this. Kim is very ill and is in a hurry to lay all his trump cards on the table so as to leave his son in as strong a position as possible. He isn't following some well-though-out plan; it's his illness that drives him to act."

-- Josh Ward

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