BEIJING – Former US President Bill Clinton met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il Tuesday during a surprise visit billed as a mission to secure the release of two American reporters sentenced to 12 years in jail for illegal entry.
But it's the highest profile visit by any past or present United States leader since former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited the country six years ago. As such, it holds out the rare prospect of direct talks between the US and North Korea at a time of rising tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program. The secretive state has hinted recently that it wants bilateral dialogue with the US instead of six-way talks with regional powers.
How broad was the conversation?
North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Kim had "a wide-ranging exchange of views on the matters of common concern" and that Clinton brought a message from US President Barack Obama, but the White House denied this.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called the trip a "solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans."
The two journalists were working on a film on North Korean refugees for Current TV, an Internet cable channel owned by former vice president Al Gore, when they were detained. In June they were convicted of committing “hostile acts” and illegal entry and sentenced to 12 years of “reform through labor.” They have, however, been spared North Korea's notorious labor camps and instead are reportedly being held at a state guesthouse.
The last time a former US president visited North Korea, which is subject to a withering international sanctions regime, was when Jimmy Carter visited in 1994, during the Clinton presidency. At that time, North Korea sought to use Carter as a diplomatic backchannel, and the trip was later seen as having yielding some progress in negotiations over the country's nuclear program.
Entering the diplomatic fray
No former president is ever seen abroad as strictly a private citizen, and that's doubly the case for Clinton, since his wife is Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. His visit is likely to flatter North Korea’s leadership. It is the first time that Mr. Clinton, who runs a charitable foundation, has entered the diplomatic fray on behalf of the Obama administration.
The KCNA said Tuesday that Clinton’s aircraft had landed in the capital Pyongyang. In a short item entitled "Bill Clinton Arrives Here," the agency reported that two senior officials had received him and that a little girl presented a bouquet to him.
While the immediate focus appears to be on securing an amnesty for the two reporters, Clinton is certain to broach the topic of nuclear disarmament talks, says Kim Tae-woo, vice president of the Korean Institute for Defence Analysis in Seoul. But that may prove an even harder nut to crack, particularly at a time of leadership uncertainty in North Korea. Kim is reported to be ailing and preparing for his succession.
“I don’t think that North Korea is ready to give up its nuclear weapons. Even though there may be dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, it’s not easy to find a solution,” he says.
US pushes six-party talks
The Obama administration has insisted that North Korea must rejoin six-party nuclear talks, together with China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. At a regional summit two weeks ago, Ms. Clinton said North Korea had “no friends left” to shield it from global efforts to curb its nuclear program. That earned her a derisive blast from North Korea’s foreign ministry, which likened her to a “primary schoolgirl” and a “pensioner going shopping.”
The detention of the two American reporters is widely seen as a bargaining chip for North Korea in dealing with the US. Ms. Clinton has sought to separate their plight from the nuclear disarmament issue, however, and has insisted that no concessions would be granted to North Korea after its nuclear test in May led to increased UN Security Council sanctions.
Updated at 10:57 a.m.