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Kim Jong-il Plays 'Let's Make a Deal'

By Wesley Pruden, The Washington Times - August 7, 2009

Bubba always lands on his feet. This time his size 12s landed on Page One, which he regards as his permanent natural home. He put Hillary in his shade as well, a genuine twofer.

We can all cheer the release of the two young women, Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, who were arrested nearly five months ago on North Korea's border with China. They were investigating human trafficking across the border where women are routinely bought and sold.

But we don't know yet what Bubba, carefully instructed by President Obama, paid for the two women, who were researching a project of Al Gore's television venture, Current TV. (Cooling the earth is apparently not a full-time day job.)

The White House insists that Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang as "a private citizen," took no message from Barack Obama to Kim Jong-il, "the Dear Leader," and was authorized only to negotiate the release of the two women. But given President Obama's obsession with finding things in America's past to apologize for, you have to wonder. Bubba, a good old boy at heart, doesn't do apologies particularly well, but he understands diplomatic instructions.

Nobody could credibly accuse either George W. Bush or Barack Obama of getting tough with Kim Jong-il, and the Japanese and the South Koreans, who live in intimate proximity to the crazies in Pyongyang, have a legitimate worry that the Obama administration will descend from medium-soft to industrial-strength squishy. "South Korea and Japan remain exceedingly nervous that Obama will eventually abandon the U.S. policy of denuclearizing North Korea and accept a lower standard of merely preventing future nuclear proliferation," says Bruce Klingner, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation and a longtime observer of North Korean adventuring.

Over the past two decades, the North Koreans have played a successful shell game with the West, getting groceries to feed their starving millions and sending nothing but taunts and mockery in return. Kim flaunts his missiles, exports them to the Middle East and insists on talking only with someone really, really big from Washington, like a president. A former president might do for starters. Bubba's presence at the table -- he's big enough -- is an acceptable opening act.

Kim and his men know how to roll the weak, the willing and the unwary. Twenty years ago, Kim Il-sung, the original Great Leader and the father of the dear one, invited me and four colleagues from The Washington Times to Pyongyang, with promises that we would interview the top officials of the government. There were strong hints that we would meet the Great Leader himself. For two days, we were guided only to the cultural sights, with not a foreign minister, economic secretary or army chief of staff in sight. We were warned by Korean friends to expect delay, evasion and broken promises as the Korean negotiating tactic, and armed with suggestions for dealing with it. The managing editor and I threw a carefully practiced fit. "I didn't come here to see the Great Leader's birthplace, as inspiring as it is," I told our guides, "and we're going home." More promises followed, and later that day the interviews were scheduled. Nine days later, we had talked to every senior official of the Great Leader's government.

A dinner was scheduled on our final night, with stronger hints that Kim Il-sung would join us. All we got was a tough steak and a 40-minute "toast" by a high foreign office official. He viciously berated the United States, a succession of American presidents and "criminal American soldiers." I offered the ritual return toast to our hosts, reduced to this: "Here's to the president of the United States." Then I sat down.

The next day, from Hong Kong, I filed a dispatch about our visit to North Korea, writing only about the coincidence of meeting Billy Graham in Pyongyang and listening to him preach the Gospel to a small congregation in the very belly of the beast. A high official at the North Korean mission to the United Nations called to say he had read the Graham dispatch and to ask when the interviews would run. "They won't," I replied. "You promised Kim Il-sung. Billy Graham in Pyongyang is all we'll write about." He called back an hour later to ask whether I would return to Pyongyang for a meeting with the Great Leader. "No," I said, "but the managing editor will." And so she did, and we finally got everything promised -- together with an insight, small but revealing, into how to deal with certain clever despots.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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