The already famous picture of Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il sitting side by side for a formal photograph on Tuesday shows an enormous painting of waves crashing against rocks in the background. In North Korea, this motif is a standard symbol of the country’s resolve to stand up to the outside world, but I doubt if the average American saw anything but a glorious piece of kitsch. No less disparate are the ways in which the two countries are interpreting the former president’s humanitarian mission.
The response of American commentators is, for the most part, similar to what was said last year when the New York Philharmonic visited Pyongyang, and what was said a year before that when the (now-forgotten) February 13 Agreement emerged from the six-party talks: namely, Kim Jong Il finally appears ready for better relations with Washington.
A new note of silliness is being struck this time, though, with assertions that the North Koreans respect Clinton and look back fondly on his administration. Where was this respect and affection when the man was in office? True, Pyongyang liked the obsequious letter Clinton sent to “His Excellency” Kim Jong Il in 1994, promising full compliance with the terms of the Agreed Framework; it was printed in full in encyclopedias and history books. But in the years that followed, the president was alternately mocked and vilified in North Korean propaganda as a man who would have gone to war had he believed America stood a chance of winning.