- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009

North Korea’s pardon Tuesday of two American journalists marks former President Bill Clinton’s first major mission for the Obama administration and presents an opportunity to improve relations with a secretive regime that until recently had been escalating tensions with the United States and its allies.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il granted the rare pardon after he met with Mr. Clinton in Pyongyang. The former president left after spending less than 24 hours in North Korea. His spokesman said the reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, left with Mr. Clinton.

President Obama called the two women’s families Tuesday night to “express relief” at their release, a senior administration official said during a conference call with reporters.

Mr. Clinton’s visit was “a reflection of a whole lot of work over a couple of months,” the official said on the condition of anonymity because the visit was private. The effort started when the North Koreans first allowed the journalists to call their families in the spring, he said, and culminated with an indication in mid-July that they would be granted amnesty if Mr. Clinton went to Pyongyang.

To view an AP interactive timeline of U.S.-North Korean relations, click here.

The official also said the North Koreans understood that a visit would “not be connected to other issues,” such as U.N. sanctions on the North. He added that, before Mr. Clinton left for Pyongyang, the administration “consulted directly with allies,” such as South Korea and Japan, to make sure they “fully understood what the trip was and what it wasn’t.”

The meeting with Mr. Kim lasted an hour and 15 minutes, after which they had a two-hour dinner, the senior official said. The women shook hands with Mr. Clinton before they boarded an airplane and appeared in good physical condition.

Although the White House insisted that Mr. Clinton was on a private humanitarian mission, North Korea treated the visit as official and sent its top nuclear negotiator to greet Mr. Clinton at the airport.

The senior administration official also said, “I’m sure President Clinton gave his views on denuclearization.”

Mr. Clinton was accompanied by two aides - his former chief of staff, John D. Podesta, who headed the Obama transition team last year, and David Straub, a former career diplomat with extensive experience in Korean affairs.

“A former president is not just a private citizen,” said Han Shik Park, director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues at the University of Georgia. Mr. Park, who visited North Korea last month and learned that the two American reporters were being kept at a guest house in Pyongyang instead of a labor camp, said, “There will be informal follow-ups and everything [Mr. Clinton discussed with Mr. Kim] will be dissected in Washington.”

Mr. Kim, who suffered a stroke last year and is said to be preparing his youngest son for succession to power, looked thin and wan in official pictures of the meeting with Mr. Clinton and his entourage.

“Kim Jong-il issued an order of the chairman of the [North Korean] National Defense Commission on granting a special pardon to the two American journalists who had been sentenced to hard labor in accordance with Article 103 of the Socialist Constitution and releasing them,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

The women were arrested March 17 near the border with China and slapped with 12-year sentences in June. North Korea accused them of illegally entering its territory.

North Korean media said Mr. Clinton delivered a message to Mr. Kim from President Obama. The White House denied this, but diplomats and Asia specialists said the North’s nuclear program was most likely discussed.

Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society in New York and a former career diplomat, said he was “certain that [Mr. Clinton] conveyed important messages from the Obama administration about U.S. willingness to improve relations, as well as profound U.S. concern over the path that [North Korea] has taken in recent months.”

The Obama administration came into office pledging engagement with difficult regimes, but North Korea in May staged its second test of a nuclear device and has continued to launch ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions and its own commitments in the six-nation disarmament talks.

“Although President Clinton was not in Pyongyang to negotiate these issues with the North Koreans, I hope his presence there has served to clarify for the North Koreans the benefits of a better relationship with the United States and the international community, and the dangerous risk that [North Korea] is running by pursuing its current course,” Mr. Revere said.

News about Mr. Clinton’s trip was kept secret until shortly before he landed Tuesday, although speculation about a high-profile envoy traveling to the North to seek the women’s release has been rampant for months.

“The visit most certainly involved some delicate preparation,” Mr. Revere said.

Mr. Clinton’s name was one of several mentioned as an emissary. Others were former Vice President Al Gore and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Mr. Gore co-founded Current TV, a cable outlet that sent Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee on assignment to the China-North Korea border.

Mr. Richardson has a track record of freeing jailed Americans from North Korea and other totalitarian countries.

Mr. Clinton nearly went to North Korea in 2000 at the end of his second term. Relations between the North and the United States reached a high point when Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright visited Pyongyang in October of that year.

“Bill Clinton is just about the only one” who could stage such a visit, Mr. Park said. “This is just about the best thing that could happen.”

Mr. Revere said the most important opportunity the meeting provided was “the ability [Mr. Clinton] would have to deliver a clear, unfiltered message to the North Korean leader.”

“As we and others have discovered over the years, the only way to ensure that the North Korean leader understands both the positive and negative messages we wish to communicate is to do so directly,” he said.

If relations improve in the aftermath of the visit, that will represent a major shift.

Last month, North Korea and Mr. Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, exchanged insults. Mrs. Clinton compared the North to an unruly teenager with a constant need for attention, and the North called her “vulgar” and “funny.”

Mr. Clinton’s high-profile mission eclipsed Mrs. Clinton’s own overseas travel to Africa this week and could mark the beginning of a new role for the former president as a diplomatic troubleshooter for the Obama administration.

While North Koreans have refused to return to nuclear talks - which also include China, Japan, South Korea and Russia - they have said they are ready to negotiate directly with Washington. The Obama administration has resisted those calls, but Mr. Clinton’s visit offers a chance for Pyongyang to save face, analysts said.

“It is hard to imagine that the former president will not both scold North Korea for its nuclear and missile tests and reiterate the Obama administration’s desire to re-engage in negotiations if the North is serious about denuclearization,” said Victor D. Cha, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council at the White House.

“In this sense, the visit offers an opportunity to lower the level of ongoing tension since the May nuclear tests and open a path to negotiations,” he said.

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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