Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Il
Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service  /  AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during his meeting Tuesday with former U.S. President Bill Clinton in Pyonggyang, North Korea.
updated 8/6/2009 8:07:35 AM ET 2009-08-06T12:07:35

Kim Jong Il's smile said it all.

North Korea's ruler, his leadership clouded for nearly a year by health problems, didn't hide his satisfaction at receiving Bill Clinton in Pyongyang. For a man who wants his country to stand on an equal footing with the U.S., the visit by the former president — and husband of the current secretary of state — was a rare and lucky catch.

Photos showed Kim in animated discussion with Clinton at a conference table Tuesday, and beaming as he stood beside his guest in formal pose.

"He was one happy camper," Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu think tank, said of Kim. "To him it's a sign of prestige."

The White House insisted Clinton's mission was strictly humanitarian, to rescue two American journalists convicted of illegally entering North Korea. But coming at a time of high tension over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, it inevitably raised hopes of broader diplomatic fallout.

It gave Kim a rare opportunity to strike a statesmanlike, benevolent posture for global consumption, and to have an ex-president appear before him as a supplicant.

Dispelling some health rumors
It also enabled him to show, a year after reportedly suffering a stroke, that while he may look physically weaker he is still fit enough at age 67 to engage in talks with a powerful Western visitor.

Jeong Se-hyun, a South Korean former Cabinet minister who met Kim in 2007, said the North Korean leader showed that "he has no health problems and is healthy enough to make normal judgments."

Kim clearly wanted the visit to be more than a one-time humanitarian affair. North Korea's state-run media reported that Clinton brought a message from President Barack Obama and apologized to Kim for the journalists' intrusion. Not reported by that media was the White House's flat denial of both claims.

The Korean leader signaled his intentions in other ways. Greeting Clinton at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport was Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator. At his leader's right hand during the meeting with Clinton was First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju, considered his foreign-policy brain, who negotiated a nuclear deal with the U.S. in 1994, during the Clinton administration.

Visit could create ‘opportunities’
Clinton's visit has come as U.S. and South Korean officials are working on a "comprehensive" strategy for persuading North Korea to dismantle its nukes, breaking from the step-by-step process that is littered with unkept promises.

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Now Kim may feel better positioned to push forward with the negotiations and reap promised rewards in the form of aid, fuel oil shipments and political concessions, mainly from the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

His overriding aim is to ensure the survival of the communist state founded by his father, Kim Il Sung, 61 years ago and hand off power to one of his sons. For Kim, the route is to replace the truce that ended the 1950-53 Korean War with a peace treaty, establish diplomatic relations with the U.S. and win security guarantees for his regime.

"If this was handled well, and he has a positive feeling about it, it could create opportunities," said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank.

Clinton is viewed positively in North Korea and represents a period when things were looking up between the two countries.

He is one of the few Americans, and easily the most renowned, whom Kim has met since assuming power 15 years ago upon his father's death. He also met Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, in late 2000, and there was even talk of a possible trip by Clinton himself at the end of his presidency.

But Kim's dilemma is that the U.S. is unlikely to embrace him until he takes real action to dismantle his nuclear program, his only true leverage in international affairs. He may still decide that the regime's ultimate security rests on being feared as a nuclear state.

But that would only stoke further tensions with Washington, risk starting an atomic arms race in Northeast Asia and push Kim further from his ultimate goal.

The choice is clear. And it's Kim Jong Il's to make.

More on: North Korea

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