Clinton landed in the North Korean capital in an unmarked jet. On arrival he
shook hands with Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Kwan and the deputy speaker
of parliament. Footage from television news agency APTN showed Clinton
bowing and smiling as a young girl presented him with flowers.
The unusually warm exchange between officials from communist North Korea and
the ex-leader of a wartime foe comes amid heightened tensions between
Washington and Pyongyang over the regime’s nuclear program. In recent
months, North Korea has abandoned a disarmament pact, launched a long-range
rocket, conducted a nuclear test and test-fired a barrage of ballistic
missiles in defiance of the UN Security Council.
Clinton was making his first trip to North Korea in hopes of securing the
release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al
Gore’s California-based Current TV media venture who were arrested along the
North Korean-Chinese border in March.
But the visit could reap rewards beyond the women’s release, with Clinton and
North Korean officials broaching the nuclear impasse, diplomatic relations
and other long-standing issues between Washington and Pyongyang, analysts
said. Kim, the vice foreign minister, also serves as North Korea’s chief
“This is a very potentially rewarding trip. Not only is it likely to resolve
the case of the two American journalists detained in North Korea for many
months, but it could be a very significant opening and breaking this
downward cycle of tension and recrimination between the US and North Korea,”
Mike Chinoy, author of “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean
Nuclear Crisis,” said in Beijing.
North Korea accused Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, of sneaking into the country
illegally in March and engaging in “hostile acts,” and the nation’s top
court sentenced them in June to 12 years of hard labor. The U.S. and North
Korea do not have diplomatic relations, but officials were believed to be
working behind the scenes to negotiate their release.
Clinton, whose administration had relatively good relations with Pyongyang;
Gore, his vice president; and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who in the
1990s traveled twice to North Korea to secure the freedom of detained
Americans, had all been named as possible envoys to bring back Lee and Ling.
However, the decision to send Clinton, whose wife is now secretary of state,
was kept quiet. A senior US official later confirmed to reporters traveling
to Africa with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the former
president was in North Korea.
“While the mission is in progress, we will have no comment,” the official
said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the
negotiations. “Our interest is the successful completion of the mission and
the safe return of the journalists.”
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency announced Clinton’s visit
with a brief dispatch but did not say who he would be meeting during his
There was speculation Clinton might see leader Kim Jong Il, who analysts say
is eager to smooth over relations with Washington as he prepares to name a
Kim, 67, reportedly is in ill health, suffering a stroke a year ago on top of
chronic diabetes and heart disease. He rules the impoverished communist
nation of 24 million with absolute authority, but has not publicly named the
next leader. He is believed, however, to be grooming his third son,
26-year-old Jong Un, to take over.
Internal stability is key to a smooth transition, and establishing relations
with Washington would be one way to rule out a threat from a superpower that
has 28,500 troops stationed just on the other side of the border with South
Korea, analysts said. The two Koreas remain technically at war because their
three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
Releasing the journalists would be a face-saving segue into talks, analysts
“When you’re dealing with Kim Jong Il in North Korea, his word has been, may
still be, law. And so it is actually possible to sit down and have a
significant conversation that could change the current trajectory of US –
North Korean relations,” said Jim Walsh, a nuclear proliferation expert at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
During a nuclear standoff with North Korean in 1994, former President Jimmy
Carter went to Pyongyang and met with leader Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il’s late
father. That visit, during Clinton’s presidency, led to a breakthrough
accord months later.
The last high-ranking US official to meet with Kim Jong Il was Madeleine
Albright, Clinton’s secretary of state, who visited Pyongyang in 2000 at a
time of warming relations. Ties turned frosty when George W. Bush took
office in the White House in 2001.
Since President Barack Obama took office, Pyongyang has expressed interest in
one-on-one negotiations with Washington. The latest provocations were seen
in part as a way to draw a concerned US into bilateral talks.
Washington says it is willing to hold such talks with the North, but only
within the framework of international disarmament negotiations in place
since 2003. Those talks involve China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the
United States. North Korea has said it will never return to the six-nation
Lee and Ling were captured in North Korea’s far northeast in the midst of the
nuclear standoff. They had traveled to the border region in China to report
on women and children defectors from North Korea.
Their families and US officials have pushed for their release, noting that
Ling has a medical condition and that Lee has a 4-year-old daughter.
Hillary Rodham Clinton has urged North Korea to grant them amnesty, saying the
women were remorseful and their families anguished.
“We are still very distressed by the absence of Laura and Euna but remain
hopeful that a positive resolution can be reached,” TV journalist Lisa Ling,
Ling’s older sister, told the Committee to Protect Journalists in July.
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