Clinton in N.Korea seeking reporters' release

North Korea welcomed former President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang with flowers and hearty handshakes today as he arrived in the communist nation on a surprise mission to bring home two jailed American journalists.

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 nuclear negotiator.

"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 trip.

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 successor.

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 said.

"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 disarmament process.

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor