August 05, 2009 08:55
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton has won the freedom of two American journalists who were sentenced to hard labor in North Korea. Clinton went on a surprise visit to Pyongyang on Tuesday to win the release of Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who have been held for 141 days since they were arrested on March 17 while working at the China-North Korea border near the Duman (or Tumen) River. Press reports said the two journalists were traveling back to the U.S. with Clinton.
The North Korean state media said Clinton and his entourage arrived in Pyongyang by air on Tuesday. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met with Clinton and received a "verbal message" from U.S. President Barack Obama, they said. They added Kim pardoned the two reporters and ordered their release later.
The political weight Clinton carries as a former U.S. president and as the husband of the incumbent secretary of state has given rise to speculation that he was on a broader mission to find a breakthrough in Washington-Pyongyang relations.
A South Korean government official earlier indicated most of the behind-the-scenes negotiations for the journalists' release had been finished before Clinton's trip, saying U.S. and North Korean officials held "intimate talks" through the North UN mission in New York until Clinton's visit to the North materialized.
South Korean and U.S. government officials are stressing that Clinton visited the North as a private citizen. The U.S. has maintained the principle that it is necessary to separate the journalists' detention, a humanitarian issue, from political issues including the North Korean nuclear problem.
But experts doubt that such a prominent figure would only play a simple role in securing the journalists' release. Prof. Kim Yong-hyun of Dongguk University said, "Clinton's visit to the North is a big event that can turn the current mode of confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang into dialogue mode. We should view his visit as the beginning of overall change in the U.S. policy toward North Korea."
The North Korean media's quick reporting on the visit shows how eagerly the North expected something bigger than a mere ransom for the journalists from his visit, experts speculate.
Experts point out that the North rejected U.S. proposals for a visit by the special representative for North Korea policy, Stephen Bosworth, former U.S. vice president Al Gore, or New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, because it wanted someone more prominent.
Yun Duk-min, a professor of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said earlier if Clinton met with Kim, "there is a high likelihood that the North Korean nuclear talks will resume." The South Korean official said the meeting between the two would allow the North to convey its position on the nuclear issue directly to the U.S. government.
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