Secret Clinton Visit Frees Two Journalists

Former President's 24-hour Visit To North Korea Caps Several Months Of Behind-the-scenes U.s. Diplomacy

August 05, 2009|By John M. Glionna and Paul Richter | John M. Glionna and Paul Richter,Tribune Newspapers

North Korea's surprise "special pardon" of two American television journalists may have reopened the channels of communication between the Obama administration and the secretive regime that for years has defied the world with its nuclear tests and political bombast.

After a whirlwind 24-hour visit that capped months of quiet diplomatic negotiations, former President Bill Clinton left Pyongyang on a private jet with the reporters today following talks with leader Kim Jong Il, according to North Korea's state news media.

The women, dressed in short-sleeve shirts and jeans, appeared healthy as they climbed the steps to the plane and shook hands with Clinton before getting into the jet, video footage in Pyongyang showed. Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna said the flight was bound for Los Angeles, where the journalists will be reunited with their families.

The Central Korean News Agency reported that Clinton "expressed thanks [for the pardon] and delivered an oral message from Barack Obama on improving relations between the two countries." It added that Clinton "delivered a sincere request from the U.S. government for a pardon and return [of the two journalists] from a humanitarian aspect."

Clinton's landmark trip also resulted in rare talks with the reclusive Kim that state-run media described as "wide-ranging" and "exhaustive." The meeting was Kim's first with a prominent Western figure since reportedly suffering a stroke nearly a year ago.

Democratic lawmakers heaped praise on the White House, even while White House officials continued to insist that they had no hand in Clinton's apparent success.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were on assignment for San Francisco-based Current TV in March when they were arrested by North Korean border guards and later sentenced to 12 years in prison for illegally entering the country.

They were arrested as they reported about the trafficking of women. It's unclear if they strayed into the North or were grabbed by aggressive border guards who crossed into China but recent statements suggested they admitted to deliberately crossing into the country.

Reached at her home in Los Angeles, Ling's sister, Lisa Ling, said the extended families of both reporters were together Tuesday and were keeping in close contact with U.S. State Department officials regarding Clinton's progress.

"We are beside ourselves," Lisa Ling said of the release. "We are beyond thrilled and so excited that we will finally be able to hold them in our arms." She called the long weeks since her sister's arrest in North Korea "the most unpredictable, challenging 4 1/2 months of our lives."

U.S. officials said that offering Bill Clinton as envoy was a high-stakes choice. The North Koreans, eager to have their importance acknowledged, were pleased at the idea of a visit from the former leader of the free world.

The plan was to give them, with the visit, "a gesture of respect - but that's all. No money, no flowery words," said a person familiar with the negotiations, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy.

He said that the administration also intends to continue trying to increase pressure on North Korea in response to recent nuclear tests and missile launchings that the United States and allies consider illegal.

U.S. officials have been trying to enlist other nations, especially in Asia, to clamp down on North Korea's nuclear and missile trade, and to try to cut it off from international financing to support that trade.

Clinton's mission risked domestic criticism that the administration was again rewarding one of the world's biggest weapons proliferators, a country that has repeatedly broken promises to the United States and its allies.

In Washington, reaction from conservatives was generally muted. Some congressional Republican aides said it was difficult to judge the mission until it was clearer what promises, if any, Clinton had made to Kim, and what the administration might give the North Koreans to try to resume the talks.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denied Clinton went with a message from Obama. "That's not true," he told reporters.

"While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment" until the mission is complete, Gibbs said in a statement. "We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton's mission."

Clinton was accompanied by John Podesta, his one-time White House chief of staff, who also is an informal adviser to Obama.

Clinton was accorded honors typically reserved for heads of state. Senior officials, led by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, who also serves as the regime's chief nuclear negotiator, met his private unmarked plane as it arrived Tuesday morning.

Video from a television news agency showed Clinton exchanging warm handshakes with officials and accepting a bouquet of flowers from a schoolgirl.

Kim later hosted a banquet for Clinton at the state guesthouse, Radio Pyongyang and the Korean Central Broadcasting Station reported. The VIPs and Kim posed for a group shot in front of the same garish mural depicting a stormy seaside landscape that Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, posed in front of during her historic visit to Pyongyang in 2000.

But not long ago, North Korea's Foreign Ministry had harsh words for Clinton's wife, describing her as "a funny lady" who sometimes "looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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