Rupert Cornwell: Meeting could spell end of nuclear standoff with US

This first use by Obama of Clinton as a special envoy was anything but a freelance job
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As always, it is hard to read the mind of North Korea, and never more so than now, after a string of provocative missile tests by the regime and speculation over Kim Jong-il's health and grip on power. It is widely believed that he is about to transfer power to his youngest son Kim Jong-un.

It would nonetheless have been astonishing had what was clearly a carefully choreographed event not led to freedom for the two journalists. For Mr Clinton to return empty-handed after meetings, not just with the two women but with Mr Kim and some of his senior aides, would have been a humiliation that would have served the interests of neither party. Beyond that however, nothing was certain.

The White House yesterday was sticking to the fiction that the visit was "solely private", denying reports that Mr Clinton had delivered a message from President Obama during his meeting with the North Korean leader. In fact, this first high-profile use in the Obama era of the former president as a special envoy, surely is anything but a freelance operation.

The opening for it came with a change of language by Mr Clinton's own wife. The Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently began urging an "amnesty" for Euna Lee and Laura Ling, implicitly conceding that the two had broken the laws of North Korea.

Such adjustments do not happen by accident – nor does a full dress meeting with Kim Jong-il within hours of a visiting dignitary's arrival, welcomed by a high-level party including the North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator.

Given the regard in which the former US president is held in Pyongyang, the visit might do a lot more than secure the release of the two women. It may also pave the way for a breakthrough in the tortuous nuclear dispute between the US and North Korea.

North Korea may have decided that after the recent escalation of tensions with Washington, it is time to cool things down – and that Mr Clinton's visit, ostensibly a mercy mission, is the ideal vehicle for something much broader and of mutual benefit.

Unfiltered talks with a top American of the stature of the former president satisfy the North's craving for direct bilateral dealings with the US. For Pyongyang, this is something of a coup, as it represents confirmation of the regime's legitimacy and importance. Some will say the former president's visit is a mistake that rewards bad behaviour. But Washington may be prepared to concede this in the hope of making gains on the nuclear issue.

Ironically, the last former US president to go to North Korea was Jimmy Carter in 1994. The then occupant of the White House was Mr Clinton, grappling with an earlier crisis over Pyongyang's secret nuclear programme in which Washington came close to bombing the North's key nuclear facility at Yongbyon. By the end of his presidency, relations improved to the point that Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State at the time, went to North Korea, and only lack of time prevented Mr Clinton doing so himself. His officials at the time counselled against an 11th-hour mission that might have ended in failure. That ambition has now been fulfilled.