By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Former president Bill Clinton landed in North Korea on Tuesday on an unannounced mission to negotiate the release of two American journalists, marking his first diplomatic mission abroad for the Obama administration in a case that has deeply concerned his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton and his party were greeted at an airport in Pyongyang, the capital, by Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of the presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly and by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-Gwan, the Korean Central News Agency said. Kim is the chief nuclear negotiator for North Korea.
His arrival was announced by the North Korea's official news agency, which reported, "A little girl presented a bouquet to Bill Clinton."
The journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were seized near the Chinese border while working on a story, and they immediately became pawns in a rapidly detoriating relationship between Washington and Pyongyang. They were sentenced in June to to 12 years of hard labor.
The communist state declared the women -- who were working for San Francisco-based Current TV, co-founded by Clinton's vice president, Al Gore -- were convicted of "grave crimes" and "slander" against the nation, and Ling recently told her sister by telephone that she and Lee broke North Korea's laws.
Following that conversation, the Obama administration has signaled a shift in tone regarding the reporters, calling for their "amnesty," in contrast to earlier demands for a "humanitarian release."
Chris Nelson, editor of a respected newsletter on Asia policy, said the White House made the decision last week to send Clinton after considering a number of other emissaries, including Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Clinton commands a great deal of respect in North Korea because he nearly visited Pyongyang in the waning days of his presidency and because North Korea's top military commander, Jo Myong-rok, visited Washington in 2000 and met with Clinton, said Victor Cha, a Georgetown professor who advised former president George W. Bush on North Korea.
The mission marks a highly unusual trip to the Stalinist state by a senior U.S. official. The highest-ranking official to visit North Korea is then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 2000, although former president Jimmy Carter traveled there in 1994. Contacts were limited at the start of George W. Bush's administration but, in an unsuccessful effort to seal a deal ending North Korea's weapons programs, then-Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill made several trips in the latter part of Bush's tenure.
Relations between North Korea and the United States reached a high point during Clinton's administration, highlighted by a 1994 deal for the North Koreans to freeze a plutonium-based nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. But relations have deterioriated since Clinton left office.
Bush accused North Korea of violating the nuclear agreement with a clandestine program to enrich uranium, killing the deal, and North Korea restarted the reactor. Experts estimate that North Korea has since harvested enough plutonium for at least a half-dozen nuclear weapons.
President Obama's desire for more direct engagement between the countries was met in North Korea with the test-firing of more missiles and, in March, the country's second test of a nuclear device. The United States moved quickly to impose new sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, and North Korea responded by vowing to never return to a six-nation negotiating forum on its nuclear programs.
North Korea's Foreign Ministry last week lashed out at Secretary Clinton in unusually personal terms for "vulgar remarks" that it said demonstrated "she is by no means intelligent" after she compared North Korea's behavior to "small children and unruly teenagers."
Carter's trip to Pyongyang was intended to defuse a nuclear stand-off between the United States and North Korea. At the time, though, dismayed Clinton administration officials believed that Carter had engaged in freelance diplomacy that undermined the White House's negotiating stance.
Cha, the Georgetown professor, said it was "terribly ironic" that Clinton had been called upon to intervene in a similar standoff, but he did not think Clinton was visiting North Korea to negotiate a new agreement on the nuclear programs.
"It is entirely possible that" no agreement has been set for the journalists' release, said Cha, who called in a May op-ed in The Washington Post for the administration to send Gore to lobby on their behalf. "But it would be very difficult for the North not to give these people up" to a former U.S. president.
Lee and Ling were seized March 17 after walking across a shallow river that serves as the border between China and North Korea. The San Francisco-based journalists were researching a story about the trafficking of North Korean women to China.
Two others in the reporting team that crossed the river, producer Mitch Koss and a Korean Chinese guide, managed to flee, the North Korean government later said.
North Korea said that the women admitted at their trial that they came to North Korea to vilify its human rights record.
"At the trial, the accused admitted that what they did were criminal acts, prompted by a political motive to isolate and stifle the socialist system of North Korea, by faking moving images aimed at falsifying its human rights performance and hurling slanders and calumnies at it," the government said in an account of the closed trial.
Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, were sentenced June 8 after a five-day trial. The sentences, described by many outsiders as unusually harsh, could not be appealed, officials in Seoul said.