Community & Government

Case Study: Negotiating in North Korea

Bill Clinton

Lesson time 08:05 min

Hear the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of how President Clinton helped free two U.S. citizens from North Korea and learn the role that nuance plays in tense negotiations.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] - Former President Bill Clinton secretly flew to North Korea, a nation with which the US has no diplomatic relations, to win freedom for two American journalists. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years hard labor for crossing North Korea's border illegally. BILL CLINTON: My experience of North Korea trying to facilitate the release of two American citizens was a fascinating example of how the nuances of a situation can both dictate a particular approach and shape the outcome. When I was asked to go to North Korea to secure the release of a young woman, the North Koreans knew that they had walked way out on a ledge, and-- because they knew that they could not send these young women to prison for 12 years because they stepped over a tiny little river dividing North Korea and China and had the misfortune to be nabbed and arrested. We knew that the real trick was for me to get the young women out of there without giving them something substantive, which is why the White House wanted a non-official trip, so that I could look at them with a straight face and said, I'm not free to negotiate that. That's not on my job anymore. And it presented all kinds of interesting opportunities. When I got there, we had some meetings. My staff did too, and they were subject to a litany of the sins that South Korea, and the United States, and others have allegedly committed against North Korea. But the main thing they had to figure out was, what could they get if I was determined to hold my position as a non-negotiator? So we had this nice dinner. I felt guilty, because so many North Koreans were hungry, but they gave me-- President Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader of North Korea, gave me this really nice dinner. And I looked at him and I said, why did you want me to come? You know I'm very interested in your country, so I enjoy the trip, but why'd you want me to come? And he said something very interesting. He said there were three reasons. One is I was the First World leader to contact him when his father died. He said, you beat all our supposed friends. You contacted me before the Chinese did, before the Russians did. And he said, the second reason is that my father said that you did a really good, effective job representing the United States when you were president, because you were very tough in private about our plutonium program-- brutally tough. But you realize that even dictatorships have politics, and pride, and culture, so you are much more moderate in your public statements. And he said, the third is you received my envoy, a prominent general that came to see Madeleine Albright. And Madeleine Albright went to Korea. So I listened to him. Then we had the dinner. So then he said, okay, so if I'm not going to get anything substantive out of this, maybe I can look like I did. And he said during the dinner-- I almost choked, but I knew it was coming-- he said, we have 40,000 North Kor...

About the Instructor

Commander in chief from 1993 to 2001, Bill Clinton has spent a lifetime navigating complex challenges and bridging deep divides. Now the 42nd president of the United States teaches you how to be an effective, empathetic leader. Learn how to assemble, inspire, and empower diverse teams, mediate conflict, manage criticism—and create a personal framework to guide you and your team toward a shared vision.

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Bill Clinton

Drawing from his career in politics, President Bill Clinton teaches you how to inspire diverse teams, manage criticism, and mediate conflict.

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