Two American journalists are back on U.S. soil this morning, thanks to the dramatic efforts of former President Bill Clinton and his surprise meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. It was a smart diplomatic play by the Obama administration, which officially called Clinton's lightning-fast journey to Pyongyang a humanitarian trip.
Clinton made the journey as a citizen without portfolio but played the demure private diplomat perfectly, gaining the release of Current TV's Euna Lee and Laura Ling. He could assess the situation with the isolated North Korean leader. And now, with the expertise of a former president, he can quietly and privately counsel Obama officials on an appropriate next move.
While this was the highest-profile U.S. visit to North Korea in nearly a decade, those who argue that the Obama administration caved in to the demands of an unbalanced, power-hungry leader miss the point. The Obama administration will now have more firsthand knowledge in how best to handle the mercurial, reclusive Kim and his "hermit kingdom." That information, gleaned without any presidential commitment, is worth whatever Kim got out of the meeting for his own propaganda machine.
Gaining the release of two innocent American journalists and saving them from the kangaroo court sentence of a dozen years of hard labor was important. So was taking the measure first-hand of a nuclear-armed and missile-equipped leader that the United States needs to deal with directly. The efforts to isolate North Korea during the Bush administration failed to produce results, and it is time for a different strategy. While Clinton has tried to stay out of the Obama administration's way, this was a useful contribution that could lead to more sweeping developments.