NORTH KOREA: Bill Clinton may return with journalists

Former U.S. president arrives in Pyongyang to negotiate for release of two American journalists

The Korea Herald
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

By Kim Ji-hyun

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was yesterday expected to possibly return home flanked by the two American journalists who have been detained in North Korea since March for trespassing and other crimes.

The former president arrived in Pyongyang by jet yesterday morning and was greeted by several North Korean officials including chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan and vice parliamentary speaker Yang Hyong-sop, according to the North's state-run media.

Clinton was reportedly accompanied by only civilians and no U.S. government officials, a signal that many interpreted to mean that Washington was looking to settle only the journalist issue and not delve into political matters, according to officials here.

But it was widely agreed that the former president would likely open up avenues of dialogue between the United States and North Korea to possibly ease the nuclear standoff.

It was not immediately known whether Clinton met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, or if the former president harbored such plans.

"If Kim Jong-il is not well, it would be strange if they met. But it would provide the confirmation that he's well," said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS. "If he doesn't meet Kim, it would be equally dangerous because it would be a pretty damning kind of statement."

With yesterday's visit, Clinton became the second former U.S. leader to visit the reclusive communist regime that has lately further isolated itself with nuclear brinkmanship tactics.

Officials in Washington, including those at the White House and the State Department, were unavailable for comment as of press time.

The former president's visit comes amid signals from the North that it is prepared for talks with Washington after relations chilled in the months following Pyongyang's April 5 rocket launch and May 25 nuclear test.

The North appears to have engaged in such saber-rattling measures to secure the regime with its ailing leader Kim Jong-il on a determined quest to bequeath his authority to his youngest son Jong-un.

The Barack Obama administration, in response, made it clear that its priority in dealing with the North is a "complete and irreversible" denuclearization.

It confirmed that Washington would fail to ever recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear weapons state.

Clinton will negotiate for the release of the two journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee of Current TV, who were arrested in March while reporting on a story at the Chinese-North Korean border.

The two were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in June for illegally entering North Korea and engaging in unspecified "hostile acts."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- who is Bill Clinton's wife -- has repeatedly requested North Korea to grant amnesty to the reporters. She also earlier sent a letter of apology to the Pyongyang government.

Al Gore, who founded the California-based Current TV, was earlier considered a candidate to go as an envoy but North Korea reportedly rejected the former vice president.

Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. president to visit Pyongyang in 1994 in the wake of the so-called first North Korean nuclear crisis. He met with then North Korean leader Kim Il-sung who is Kim Jong-il's father.

North Korea continues to boycott the six-nation talks aimed at its denuclearization, but on July 24, the North's ambassador to the United Nations indicated Pyongyang wants to sit down for exclusive talks with Washington.

The South Korean government has remained mostly mum on the issue, reiterating its support for the six-party dialogue.

The United States also maintains that denuclearization discussions must stay within the six-nation framework.

But calls have been mounting for utilizing bilateral discussions to rekindle the talks.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was among those urging Washington to sit down with Pyongyang for a one-on-one.