Clinton Deflects Questions on Mission to N. Korea

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 6, 2009; 5:30 PM

NEW YORK, Aug. 6 -- Former President Bill Clinton said Thursday that, while negotiating the release this week of two American journalists detained in North Korea, he went no further than previous Obama administration statements in expressing regret for the journalists having entered the country illegally.

North Korea pardoned and released the two journalists after Clinton met in Pyongyang on Tuesday with the country's ailing dictator, Kim Jong-Il. North Korea said later that Clinton had apologized; the White House denied that any apology was offered.

On Thursday, Clinton spoke publicly for the first time about the trip the White House has described as a "private humanitarian mission."

While not specifically addressing whether his remarks constituted an apology, Clinton said the secretary of state -- his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton -- had already expressed regret for the journalists' breach of the North Korean border. "I was not asked for any more, nor did I offer any more," he said.

Clinton, appearing at a news conference about his foundation's efforts to combat AIDS, deflected questions about his impressions of Kim and about whether he had made concessions to the North Koreans to free the journalists.

"My job was to do one thing, which I was honored to do, as an American and as a father," he said. "I wanted those young women to be able to come home."

"Anything I say beyond that could inadvertently affect the decisions and moves either here or in North Korea, and the attitudes of our allies," Clinton continued.

The two journalists, Euna Lee, 36, and Laura Ling, 32, were detained by North Korean soldiers on March 17, and then sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean prison camp for illegal entry.

The former president answered questions at his Harlem-based William J. Clinton Foundation, in a room packed with about 150 reporters, at a news conference intended to announce the foundation's new agreements for low-cost AIDS and tuberculosis drugs for the developing world.

Clinton did not directly respond to a question about whether the trip has helped to restore him to the role of elder statesman, an image that suffered because of controversial comments he made during his wife's presidential campaign.

"As soon as the election was over, I went back to work here," he said. "I just let my work speak for itself."

"There can only be one president at a time," said Clinton, adding that he does not want his statements to restrict the administration's ability to chart a way forward. "It's not helpful and it's not necessary."

Clinton described a "deeply emotional" first encounter with Lee and Ling. He said they were "delightful" on the trip home to Los Angeles by private plane, so happy and excited they couldn't sleep. Lee talked frequently about being reunited with her young daughter, he said.

The two journalists ate huevos rancheros for breakfast when the private plane stopped at an American base in Japan, Clinton said, and were careful to measure their food intake because they had been on a radically different diet for almost five months.

"It was basically a lovely thing," he said.

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