- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

President Obama sat down in the White House on Tuesday with former President Bill Clinton to thank him for his role in retrieving two captured American journalists from North Korea, a rare face-to-face meeting between two national leaders who clashed famously during last year’s primary campaign.

The two men huddled for more than 40 minutes in the Situation Room, a secure venue where the former president could provide a full briefing on his furtive trip to the isolated nation and share his insights on the discussions he held with the country’s reclusive leader, Kim Jong-il. They then continued the conversation for 30 more minutes in the Oval Office.

“Former President Clinton described the process, including a meeting with Kim Jong-il, that culminated in the North Korean leadership granting ‘special amnesty’ to the two journalists and permitting them to return to the United States,” the White House said in a statement after the meeting. “President Obama said he was gratified that the Americans had been safely reunited with their families.”

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a close friend of Mr. Clinton’s who had been chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Clinton administration, also attended the Situation Room meeting.

On Tuesday night, the office of another close friend of Mr. Clinton’s, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, said the governor would meet Wednesday in Santa Fe with two North Korean diplomats amid the continuing tension over that nation’s controversial nuclear program, Agence France-Presse reported. Mr. Richardson was ambassador to the United Nations and energy secretary during the Clinton presidency.

“The governor will meet … with a delegation from the North Korean mission to the United Nations,” Richardson spokeswoman Alarie Ray-Garcia told Agence France-Presse.

At the White House on Tuesday, Mr. Clinton went into the West Wing from a private entrance just before his scheduled 4 p.m. talk with Mr. Obama and did not speak to reporters.

It was the first chance they had for a long conversation on North Korea since Mr. Clinton returned to the U.S. with the journalists, according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. The two spoke briefly by phone immediately after the Aug. 5 trip.

Mr. Obama considered the meeting “a crucial opportunity to speak directly with and get the firsthand and direct impressions from former President Clinton about what he heard, what he saw and where we go from here,” Mr. Gibbs said.

The private meeting was one of the few face-to-face interactions Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton have had since the 2008 primary election, which pitted then-Sen. Obama against the former president’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was just a year ago that lawyers were carefully negotiating the thorny speaking and delegate arrangements for the late August Democratic National Convention. But much has changed since Mr. Obama selected Mrs. Clinton to be his secretary of state. Tuesday was an example of how far the alliance has progressed.

Even if the two limited their conversation to North Korea, they would have plenty to discuss. While repeatedly stressing that Mr. Clinton’s mission to Pyongyang earlier this month was a “private” trip, top Obama administration officials believe the two countries may be able to build on the visit to deal with other issues, including the nuclear stand-off on the Korean Peninsula.

National security adviser James L. Jones revealed that Mr. Clinton and the North Korean leader spoke for more than three hours privately on the trip, with the North’s nuclear programs and bilateral relations among the topics of discussion.

Speaking on CNN a week after the trip, Mrs. Clinton expressed a hope that “maybe, without its being part of the mission in any way, the fact that this was done will perhaps lead the North Koreans to recognize that they can have a positive relationship with us.”

After a rocky year in which the six-party talks on North Korea came to a standstill and the North tested a new nuclear device in May, analysts say the signs from Pyongyang since the release of the two American journalists have been moderately positive. A South Korean worker detained in the North was released days after the Americans were let free.

Pyongyang on Monday offered to reopen its sealed border with the South, saying it was willing to consider allowing tourist trips and “family reunions.” The move could provide greatly needed new revenue for the North’s economy.

Whether the discussion between the two men veered into other subjects such as the ongoing health care debate was unclear - neither the Obama administration nor those advising the former president would say.

Mr. Gibbs said there was “never any limits” on the discussion. “If President Clinton wants to talk about the price of tea in China, I’m sure they’ll have a good conversation about that,” he said.

If nothing else, the visit represents another chapter in the trailblazing post-presidency of Mr. Clinton. During George W. Bush’s presidency, Mr. Clinton limited his interactions with the White House mostly to charitable work. But he became a central figure behind the scenes of his wife’s presidential bid.

Simon Rosenberg, who served as an aide in the Clinton administration, said Democrats would be wise to keep the former president on call, at least as close counsel.

“President Clinton is anxious to contribute and to stay in the game,” said Mr. Rosenberg, who has spoken recently with Mr. Clinton. “He has more experience in leading a Democratic government than any man alive.”

Mr. Gibbs hinted that the two may have engaged in more frequent talks than what has been publicly disclosed, telling reporters Tuesday that he did not consider it appropriate to reveal when Mr. Obama has had private chats with former presidents.

“They’ve had conversations,” Mr. Gibbs said. “Based on what the president has told me, he doesn’t feel comfortable discussing … discussions that he has with former President Clinton, that he might have with former President Bush 43 or 41, or others.”

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