Tuesday, August 4, 2009



Former President Bill Clinton paid a surprise one-day visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on August 4,2009, and met among others
President Kim Jong-il.

2. The visit had an ostensibly humanitarian purpose---namely, to seek the release of Laura King and Euna Lee, two women journalists of
the US, who had been convicted by a North Korean court and sentenced to a long period of imprisonment on a charge of illegally entering
North Korea in March. The fact that Kim Jong-il issued a State pardon of the convicted journalists shortly after Clinton's meeting with him, thereby enabling Clinton to leave for the US the same night with the pardoned journalists indicated that North Korea had most probably agreed to the pardon even before Clinton's arrival and that Clinton went to Pyongyang not to seek their release, but to accept them.

3. Even though the US does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, US officials had been visiting North Korea in the past. Madeleine
Albright, the US Secretary of State during Clinton's second term as the President, had visited Pyongyang. US diplomats associated with the six-party talks on North Korean denuclearisation had also been visiting Pyongyang off and on.

4. However, Clinton's visit has a special significance which none of the previous visits of other American emissaries had. This significance arises not merely from the fact that he is a former President of the US, but also from the fact that he is reputed to be playing an important role in advising the administration of President Barack Obama on important foreign policy matters.

5. The humanitarian purpose of the visit, which even hardline anti-Pyongyang hawks in the US cannot criticise, conceals an underlying political purpose---- namely, to begin an exploration of new diplomatic options for pressurising or persuading North Korea to agree to denuclearisation. The developments after North Korea carried out its nuclear test of May 25,2009, and the intransigence of North Korea have clearly brought out two things: firstly, China's unwillingness or inability to exercise pressure on North Korea beyond a limit. Secondly, the six-power talks on the denuclearisation issue on which the US had put all its eggs till now appeared to have run out of steam.

6. Instead of continuing to depend on China to bring about a moderation of North Korean policies, the Obama Adminstration would appear to have decided to try a direct diplomatic approach by using the Clinton visit to see whether other options---more productive than the six-power talks-- are available.

7. Three things are certain. Firstly, it was a political visit under a humanitarian cover. Secondly, the visit must have been undertaken with the knowledge and prior approval of Obama. Thirdly, when Clinton met Kim they must have discussed not only the release of the two journalists but also political issues of concern to the two countries such as US concerns over North Korea's nuclearisation and North Korea's concerns over a US-Japan-South Korea threat to its security.

8. The fact that Clinton was in Pyongyang only for a few hours would indicate that any discussions of a political significance would have been of a general, ice-breaking nature without going into details.

9. Kim's decision to receive Clinton and to respond positively to the request for the release of the journalists would clearly show that his hold over power is as strong as ever despite recent reports of a decline in his health.

10. Will the visit turn out to be of only one-shot significance relating to the release of the journalists or will there be a political follow-up? One has to wait and see.

11. Certain other questions of considerable interest are: How was the ground prepared for the visit? Did China play a role? If not, who
did? Why have the relatives of the released journalists thanked Clinton as well as Al Gore, his Vice-President, for making the release possible? Were Japan and South Korea kept in the picture? (5-8-09)

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com )



These are the comments made by me in response to an E-mailed query from a South-East Asian journalist on the next round of border talks between India and China to be held shortly:

The deadlock in the border talks seems to continue over the issue of Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese call Southern Tibet. The Chinese are reported to be demanding that at least the Tawang Tract of Arunachal Pradesh, if not the whole of it, should be transferred to China. They are apparently adamant that there will be no border settlement without the transfer of at least Tawang to China.

2.Their claims to Tawang are based on the fact that the monastery at Tawang, according to them, has had historic relations with the monastery at Lhasa and that one of the previous Dalai Lamas was born in Tawang. India's position has been that any border settlement should not involve the transfer of populated areas. Tawang is a populated town. Its residents are Indian citizens. The Chinese had originally agreed to the principle that there should be no transfer of populated areas, but now they are reportedly insisting that this principle cannot apply to Tawang.

3. The atmosphere over the border issue has become somewhat tense recently following media reports that the Government of India had sanctioned the raising of two more Mountain Divisions for deployment in Arunachal Pradesh and that some planes of the Indian Air Foce had been deployed for the defence of Arunachal Pradesh. The Government of India has also embarked on a crash programme for the development of the road infrastructure in the Arunachal Pradesh area.

4. All these measures, which are of a purely defensive nature, were decided upon by the Government of India in reaction to the development of the road infrastructure in Tibet, the construction of the railway line to Lhasa and reports that China plans to extend this railway line from Lhasa to the Indian border and to connect its road network in Tibet with the Nepalese road network.

5.Till four years ago, the Government of India had given low priority to the development of road and other military-related infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh in order to avoid bilateral tensions on this issue when the border talks were going on. But reports that China was strengthening its military-related infrastructure in Tibet led to a decision to take defensive measures in the Arunachal Pradesh area.

6. An increase in the number of Chinese troop intrusions into the Indian territory in this area also contributed to this decision.

7. In recent weeks, sections of the Chinese media, with the Global Times of the People's Daily group at the forefront, have started an angry campaign against India on this issue. They have not only been critical of alleged Indian actions in Arunachal Pradesh, but also very sarcastic about India's aspirations of becoming a major power. This sarcasm has annoyed Indian public opinion.

8.India has bilateral disputes with Pakistan as well as China. However, large sections of the civil societies in India and Pakistan are well disposed towards each other and want close relations. This is particularly true of the younger generation in India and Pakistan. This enables the political leaders of the two countries to make political gestures to each other.

9. In the case of China, large sections of the Indian civil society in all age groups---except in the leftist parties--- are suspicious of the Chinese military intentions and would not approve of any concessions or gestures of a political nature to Beijing. In China, the older generation has nostalgic memories of the good old days of Sino-Indian friendship, but the younger generation, which is very nationalistic, does not think well of India and is very critical of it. This suspicious attitude of the two civil societies would come in the way of any gestures or concessions by either side on the border issue for the present.

10. Despite this, the political leaders of India and China have shown wisdom in not allowing the border dispute to affect bilateral relations in other fields. Bilateral trade continues to gallop. China has overtaken the US as India's second largest trading partner. Chinese companies are winning an increasing number of construction contracts in India. An increasing number of Chinese students are coming to India for improving their English. The Chinese are less and less suspicious of Indian IT companies doing business in China as possible surrogates of the Indian intelligence. The Indians are less and less suspicious of Chinese construction companies winning contracts in India as possible surrogates of the Chinese intelligence. More and more Indian students are going to China to study medicine. There is a steadily developing military-to-military relationship with two joint counter-terrorism exercises, exchange of port visits by naval ships etc

11. Despite this increasing comfort level , there is still a trust deficit. Suspicions of each other's intentions and motives in matters such as China's military and nuclear related relationship with Pakistan and India's strategic relationship with the US and Japan continue to cast a shadow on the political relations and come in the way of a mutually acceptable border compromise.

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com)