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Former U.S. president Bill Clinton went to North Korea to obtain the release of two American journalists who had been arrested in that isolated country. But his humanitarian mission as a "private guest" had a diplomatic aspect as well, in his photo-op meeting with the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong Il. It was the first meeting between Kim and a senior American figure since the end of Clinton's presidency, when then secretary of state Madeleine Albright visited. The immediate result of Clinton's visit was the release of the journalists, who flew back with him to the United States. The diplomatic consequences will become clear only in the future. If rapprochement with North Korea is renewed, Kim stops his missile and nuclear tests and the tension in East Asia dissipates, the visit will be chalked up as an important diplomatic achievement. If North Korea continues to incite, the importance of the visit will dissipate.

Diplomatic conditions in East Asia differ from those in the Middle East, but even Israelis can learn lessons from Clinton's trip. The first lesson is that a policy of boycotting and isolation is a simple solution to complex situations, but in many cases it achieves the opposite of what is desired. The Bush administration demonstrated diplomatic toughness toward North Korea, and this did not influence the country to modify its behavior; Kim responded by manufacturing plutonium and long-range missiles. It is hard to conclude America would have succeeded in bringing about the release of the journalists had it made do with boycotts and threats.

The second lesson: Sometimes there is a need to find less routine solutions and to diverge from protocol. The Obama administration tried, and failed, to renew the rapprochement with North Korea by the usual methods. Instead of giving up, accusing the other side of intransigence and saying there is nobody to talk to, it was decided to send the former president to Pyongyang. Clinton has international standing and a rare ability to form personal ties with foreign nations and leaders. That was an effective means to breach the wall of isolation and alienation and to achieve immediate results and perhaps future ones as well.

Policy makers in Israel would do well to learn from Clinton's journey to Pyongyang in advance of the unveiling of the Obama initiative for renewing the diplomatic process here.