Soft landing for journalists who faced hard labour

The return of two women from North Korea secured by Bill Clinton sparked scenes of joy. But will his diplomatic mission spark a breakthrough
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The two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea made a joyous and tearful return to US soil yesterday – but whether the dramatic rescue mission led by Bill Clinton will produce a breakthrough in the fraught diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang is still unclear.

The plane carrying Laura Ling and Euna Lee, as well as the former president, touched down shortly after dawn at Burbank airport near Los Angeles. Their 140 days of captivity in the reclusive Stalinist state had been "the most difficult, heart-wrenching days of our lives", the 32-year-old Ms Ling said, her voice choking with emotion.

"Thirty hours ago we feared that any moment we could be sent to a hard labour camp," she added. Then they were abruptly informed they were being taken to a meeting. "When we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton." The two women were shocked, "but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end, and now we stand here, home and free."

If their personal story has a happy ending, there is no guarantee that any new diplomatic chapter between the US and North Korea will have a similarly positive outcome. Indeed, it was far from clear that a new chapter will even open. Yesterday US officials were as emphatic as ever that the Mr Clinton's 24-hour visit, during which he held talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, was a personal and humanitarian mission, entirely separate from the long-running dispute between the two countries over the North's nuclear and missile testing.

Speaking from Nairobi on the first leg of a seven-nation trip to Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had spoken to her husband and that everything had gone well; it was "just a good day to see this happen". But beyond that, she stressed, nothing was sure.

The US wants Pyongyang to rejoin, without precondition, the suspended six-party talks on denuclearising North Korea. Mrs Clinton said that within this framework "perhaps they will now be willing to start talking to us", but "it certainly is not anything we're counting on." In the meantime, the efforts to free the two reporters should not be confused with the broader diplomatic issues.

At the White House too, the approach is the same. In a brief statement welcoming the freeing of Ms Ling and Ms Lee, President Obama did not utter a word about the backdrop against which they were released. Even on the details of Mr Clinton's mission, the two sides cannot agree. The North Koreans claim the former president "apologised" for the incident. Mrs Clinton was no less emphatic he did not.

Moreover, familiar stumbling blocks loom on the diplomatic front. Experts seem to agree that the North wants to improve the climate after its recent nuclear and missile tests, which drew fresh sanctions from the United Nations Security Council, and unusually stern criticism even from its key ally China.

But while the Americans insist on the six-nation negotiating forum – embracing not only the US and the North, but South Korea, Japan, Russia and China – Pyongyang craves bilateral talks with the US to prove that Washington treats it as an equal. For Mr Kim, this week's visit by one of the most high-profile figures in the US was an important first step in that direction.

But for the US to concede this point raises a separate risk – that Mr Obama will be seen as a soft touch by other troublesome regimes. John Bolton, the arch conservative former UN ambassador of the George W Bush administration, accused the White House of rewarding bad behaviour by sending a former president to "negotiate with terrorists". Now that three American hikers have been taken prisoner by Iran, he sneered in an article on the Washington Post website, "will Clinton be packing his bags again for another act of obeisance?"

In the case of North Korea, Mr Clinton was the envoy specifically demanded by Mr Kim, who turned down suggestions that John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, former UN ambassador and troubleshooter Bill Richardson, and even former vice-president Al Gore (for whose CurrentTV the two journalists work) be entrusted with the task. In the end the North Korean leader had his way. Not a word has trickled out about the actual discussions between a healthier looking Mr Kim and Mr Clinton, who will now be fully debriefed on his experiences in Pyongyang. However strenuous the White House denials, it would be astonishing if the two men did not touch upon the wider problems that divide their countries.