Monday, August 10, 2009

N. Korea and Aretha Franklin

Many of the IR/ foreign policy blogs have commented on Henry Kissinger's criticisms of Bill Clinton's visit to N. Korea last week which resulted in the release of two American journalists who had strayed into N. Korean territory. Kissinger argues that by sending a high profile (and Bill Clinton is definitely as high profile as it gets, even out of power) figure who just happens to be the husband of the Secretary of State - the US gave Pyongyang just what it wanted- a photo op and some much desired legitimacy.

Two reactions to this:

First, what's interesting to me here is precisely the question of what N. Korea, or more specifically Kim Jong Il wants in the first place. It's too easy and too rote to view N. Korea's behavior within two lenses- either within the deterrence/proliferation lens or the 'mad man' lens. Sure, there are elements of both but what this episode, just the latest in a series of otherwide baffling provocations by N. Korea, signifies is ultimately legitimacy and respect that a state like N. Korea desires. I doubt that N. Korea seriously sees itself as a challenger to the US geo-strategically, what it does want is the perception of being a powerful player that the US has to take seriously and contend with - more for domestic consumption than anything else. Kissinger is right that the photo op with Clinton is perhaps the biggest thing Kim Jong Il got out of the visit but if it hadn't been this one - it would have been some other piece of propoganda showing the US journalists kow towing to N. Korea.

As someone personally fascinated by the fantastic oddness of the N. Korean regime, I have read the few rare accounts of what it is like to visit and travel in the country. The most dominant image that emerges is just how concerned the N. Korean government is with image itself. The cult of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung is reinforced on a constant, larger than life level. And it appears to be targeted mostly for domestic consumption to a people already battered and indoctrinated into the cult.

The quest for respect as Aretha Franklin knows, is powerful. It's up the US to use this realization wisely and harness it to get N. Korea to behave reasonably and minimally with regard to non-proliferation.

Second, the episode underlines one quite simple thing- Bill Clinton's still potent and effective charisma. I know that this is likely to be an unpopular opinion but I think it would be a serious waste of sheer talent and built up political capital if Bill Clinton were to be wasted by the White House. It's a pity that the domestic discourse about 'too many heads' in the White House or the personal rivalry between the Clintons or between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were to minimize his potential role as a special envoy. Already, the Kissinger piece as well as other commentary in the US is focusing on whether this overshadows the Secretary of State or even the President, which is ridiculous and more a function of US media preoccupations than anything else. Clinton has demonstrated his ability to be restrained, follow guidelines and has not actively tried to hog the limelight in the aftermath of this success. And as far as I'm concerned, this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as his appeal and popularity in the rest of the world goes. Again, using him wisely can only be a positive thing...

Update: Although as this video shows- Hilary might not agree.

1 comment:

Heather said...

Well said Light Light. I'm glad you are coming back to us! Now, what do you think Kissinger will have to say about Bill's latest plans: