Bill Clinton Mission to N. Korea: 2 American Journalists Pardoned

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Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is visiting North Korea amid heightened tensions over a string of nuclear and missile tests in defiance of U.N. resolutions, and calls from Washington for amnesty for the two reporters. (Aug. 4) Video by AP

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Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009; 4:00 PM

North Korea announced Tuesday that it had pardoned two detained American journalists, hours after former president Bill Clinton met in Pyongyang with reclusive dictator Kim Jong Il as part of an unannounced and highly unusual diplomatic mission to win their freedom.

Washington Post staff writer Glenn Kessler was online Tuesday, Aug. 4, at Noon and at 4 p.m. ET to discuss the negotiated pardon of two American journalists -- Euna Lee and Laura Ling -- by former President Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il.

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Glenn Kessler: I'm here and am ready to answer questions on Bill Clinton's trip and North Kkorea policy in general.

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Atlanta, Ga.: How many resources are being utilized, and how much expense, because "journalists" illegally entered a country, in North Korea, and Iran, people who are supposedly educated but either circumvented entry requirements (North Korea) or simply "trekked around" in a country in which there's an ongoing "war" at the border of a country in which we have disageements? Are we to use all our resources because people have to have their own way, but because they're Americans, they expect us to stop everything to help them?

Glenn Kessler: This ia privately funded trip, so it is not at government expense. The circumstances of the journalists and how they ended up in North Korean hands are not entirely clear; there were four people in total and only two were captured. And borders are not always well marked. The reporters may have been trying to get a good camera shot, but the hikers in Iran really appeared to have accidentally crossed the border.

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New York : Is there any doubt that these journalists will be released in the near future, even if Clinton doesn't succeed? Aside from these two, how many other foreign political prisoners are the Koreans holding?

Glenn Kessler: I think this whole trip was pre-cooked. I doubt Clinton would have gone without a deal in hand. As to foreign prisoners, I don't know the answer to that question. North Korea in the past abducted Japanese citizens, and they have also abducted South Koreans.

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Arlington, Va.: So what's a bigger advantage to the Clinton trip -- the possibility of getting the two journalists released, or to put a reliable pair of eyes on Kim Jong Il to better assess his health and stability?

Glenn Kessler: Ending the ordeal of the journalists is important but I ams sure Clinton will be extensively debriefed when he gets backs.

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Philadlephia, Pa.: Has there been any comment from Al Gore or the news agency for which the two captured journalists work?

Glenn Kessler: No, nothing yet. I presume everyone is holding their breath until Clinton returns home.

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Rio Vista, Calif.: What is the meaning of Gibbs telling the media that Bill Clinton was not charged with giving oral greetings from Obama to the leaders of South Korea?

Glenn Kessler: The administration does not want anyone to think that he is there to negotiate a nuclear agreement. They have pitched this as a strictly private matter. But certainly Clinton had talking points to raise if and when the issue came up.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: How ill is the North Korean leader? Are the effects of his stroke evident? Does he have pancreatic cancer?

Glenn Kessler: We don't know much, but he looks pale and thin in recent photographs.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: I keep hearing that the Agreed Framework that the Clinton administration brokered in 1994 was a failure in that North Korea cheated on it. Isn't it true that the agreement only covered North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear program and not one based on uranium enrichment? If so, did North Korea fulfill its obligations with respect to that plutonium-based program?

Glenn Kessler: This is a complex issue. The AF covered the plutonium reactor but other nuclear activities were covered by reference to other agreements and certainly an uranium enrichment project would violate the spirit of the AF. There is not evidence that North Korea ever tried to reprocess spent fuel rods into plutonium during the period of the AF. Some critics of the Bush administration argue that they could have better managed the response to the uranium enrichment intelligence and not have blown up the AF because once that died, North Korea got its hands on the plutonium. The question of whether North Korea ever had an active uranium enrichment program is still under dispute.

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Washington, D.C.: Is this an "unofficial", i.e. not-State-Dept.-sanctioned trip structured to allow Clinton to raise issues with the North Korean leaders while at the same time avoiding raising the ire of Japan, South Korea and other nations involved in the six party talks? Is that why official greetings are not extended from the president and the secretary of state? How likely is it that this will be a successful tactic?

Glenn Kessler: I think the whoel exercise if to give North Korea some "face" while at the same time not having it as government sanctioned.

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Fairfax County, Va.: I am just very happy to see signs of forward progress on this. I worry a little bit about too much talk, even from an informed person like you, until our citizens are safely on American soil. Do you struggle with how to cover it, as a reporter?

I was also very excited to learn that former President Clinton, the most high-profile possible private citizen, was going. There was a bit of an insult battle recently with Hillary Clinton and North Korea. Do they simply see President Clinton as separate from her, or was the exchange of insults not such a big deal?

Glenn Kessler: It would be inappropriate for a sitting Secretary of State to go when North Korea is refusing to return to negotiations. Sending an ex president gets the job done without raising the diplomatic stakes.

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San Francisco, Calif.: How long is Clinton's visit to North Korea?

Glenn Kessler: Unclear but unlikely to be more than a day and a night.

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Agreed Framework: Even if the North Koreans had dotted every i and crossed every t on this agreement, wasn't the policy of the Bush administration regime change in North Korea, and didn't they reflexively turn away from any agreement entered into by the Clinton administration? So wasn't the collapse of the agreement the most desirable outcome from the viewpoint of Bolton and his people?

Glenn Kessler: Certainly few tears were shed when the deal collapsed. One official who disliked the AF said to me at the time that they had achieved "catastrophic success".

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Greenwich, Conn.: Why has The Washington Post not reported on North Korea's deliberate starvation and systematic abuse of its own people? There are reliable sources such as "Good Friends," a Buddhist charity, and refugees.

Glenn Kessler: My colleague Blaine Harden wrote a lengthy article on that just a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps we can attach a link?

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Yes, there is government expense: The former president travels with a very large security entourage at tax payer expense. I can only imagine the entourage is larger than usual, plus the expenses of flying the security there, setting up security, and paying extra for them being in a hardship location. However, I think the trip is worth it, and may lead to dialogue in the future about NKs nuclear program. Small steps...

Glenn Kessler: posting this comment

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Northville, N.Y. : Just curious. When Clinton tries to get the North Koreans to release the journalists, or when our negotiators won the release of the Iranian-American journalist, do the negotiators on the other side point out that we are holding dozens of suspects without charges -- including a 15-year-old who confessed under torture -- without even giving them show trials like the North Koreans and the Iranians? How much tougher a job are these negotiations post-Gitmo?

Glenn Kessler: good question, but don't know the answer.

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Arlington, Va.: So what's Bill Clinton doing there instead of a government official ? Also, who are the private funders of this trip ?

Glenn Kessler: we are trying to find out the private funders. Perhaps the Clinton Foundation or Current TV.

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Sewickley, Pa.: The demeanor of President Clinton and Kim Jong Il appears pretty grim in the pictures published so far. How do you read the visuals?

Glenn Kessler: Kim looks happier than I have seen him in a while. He caught a big fish!

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Dallas, Tex.: I don't think this is the question related to the journalist. There is a broader issue on hand which is pending and hurting all countries with the acts being done by the nation and Bill Clinton who has a nice choice of words and is a perfect diplomat in his own right might bring lasting peace to the issues resolving North Korea. His visit would be turning into an historic one if all things line up. But we have to see of what lies ahead and please pass on the information as you get. Thanks

Glenn Kessler: posting this comment

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Rockville, Md.: Should we be concerned for the safety of the president? They are very unpredictable, in my opinion.

Glenn Kessler: North Korea won't harm him. They may be unpredictable, but this is considered by Kim a huge honor. The visit that never happened during Clinton's term has now happened, and it becomes part of Kim's legacy. They have rolled out the big red carpet, as you can tell from the North Korean news coverage.

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Jacksonville, Fla.: Kim Jong Il could not have asked for more attention.

Are these women journalists or activists?

Glenn Kessler: Journalists.

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Anonymous: Does this trip by Bill undercut Hillary's condemnation of N. Korea's nuclear and missile testing? Does it also boost N. Korea's chest thumping? Whose back channels were used to organize the trip?

Glenn Kessler: There were many back channels, at many levels. As long as the White House keeps this segregated from the nuclear diplomacy, I don't think it undercuts from Hillary Clinton is doing. And it may inspire North Korea to be more cooperative.

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Arlington, Va.: Does anybody seriously doubt that these two journalists were in fact spying? And just had the bad luck to get caught?

Glenn Kessler: I don't think they were spying. They are news reporters.

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washingtonpost.com: N. Korea's Hard-Labor Camps: On the Diplomatic Back Burner (Post, July 20)

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Baltimore, Md.: The article said the North Koreans greatly admire Bill Clinton, but I'm wondering why it is so.

Glenn Kessler: They regard relations under Clinton as the high point of US-Korean relations. He met with a very senior military official at the White House and nearly visited Pyongyang.

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Stone Ridge, Va.: Any irony to reporters covering Clinton's trip to release captive reporters? Or is this a case of authorized vs. unauthorized entrance to North Korea?

Glenn Kessler: I don't think there are any reporters traveling with Clinton. All of the news reports thus far have been via official North Korean media.

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Chicago, Ill.: Are the questions you're answering representative of the questions you've received? Everybody's so critical and accusatory -- god forbid Clinton should try to do someting helpful.

Glenn Kessler: I've answered virtually every question that has been submitted. Must be the nature of the beast!

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Glenn Kessler: Thanks for all of the interesting questions. I have to get back to work!

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washingtonpost.com: We resumed the discussion when we learned that Kim Jong Il had pardoned the two detained American journalists hours after former President Bill Clinton met in Pyoingyang with the reclusive dictator.

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Glenn Kessler: Well, the state-controlled media just announced that Kim Jong Il has pardoned the reporters. So everything is going according to plan. I assume Clinton will soon leave, with the journalists, and there will be a big homecoming tomorrow. Any questions?

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Washington, D.C.: What does this say about the future of U.S.-N. Korea relations? Is Clinton now the modern day Henry Kissinger?

Glenn Kessler: The impact of this visit will not be known for weeks. Is Clinton bringing back a message from the North Korean leader? Have they decided to come back to the talks? My guess is that this will begin a sort of a thaw, but it is still doubtful they will ever give up their nuclear weapons. Clinton a new Kissinger? I assume you mean Bill, not Hillary. And he doesn't seem to have done much negotiating, at least now, so I am not sure the comparison is apt.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why do you think Kim Jong Il granted the pardon? Are there any conditions?

Glenn Kessler: This was the deal. He gets a big-time visitor, the US gets the journalists back.

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Washington, D.C.: What do the North Koreans get out of this? Is it a softening of policy and diplomacy?

Glenn Kessler: Kim Jong Il now adds to his legacy; the Bill Clinton visit that did not happen in 2000 has finally taken place. He has gained "face" and all he needed to do was hand over two journalists who unwittingly became pawns in a larger game. North Korea is very clever and is quite skilled in diplomacy, so this seems straight out of the usual playbook.

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Annapolis, Md.: How does this make Obama look? Is it a feather in his cap or does it make Clinton look bigger/more important than the president of the United States?

Glenn Kessler: feather in the cap, especially if it leads to a breakthrough on the nuclear diploamcy. Unlike Jimmy Carter, who freelanced in 1994 and then went on CNN to brag about it, Clinton thus far has kept quiet and not done anything to suggest he was negotiating on behalf of the administration. My guess is that Bill has not-so-fond-memories of that experience and would not want to undercut the current president, especially since his wife works for him.

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Washington, D.C.: Did the journalists actually serve any time in hard labor?

Glenn Kessler: No, the sentence was never served. That was a clear sign North Korea was looking for a deal.

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Arlington, Va.: Are the women coming back with Clinton or do they have to wait to be let out of the country?

Glenn Kessler: I am fairly certain they will come back with Clinton. It should be an all-cable-news event tomorrow.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think Al Gore will make a statement or have a news conference when they return to the states?

Glenn Kessler: Yes, I assume he will be there to greet them and his former boss.

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Reston, Va.: What would a deal entail between the two countries and how will it be evident? What are we giving Kim Jong Ill in return for the release of the journalists?

Glenn Kessler: We are giving him nothing but the respect he seeks by having a former US president break bread with him. But Clinton would not have traveled without an explicit agreement that the reporters would be pardoned and released. The negotiations took weeks, but seriously one of the demands by the North Koreans might have been that Clinton attend a banquet hosted by Kim Jong Il.

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Washington, D.C.: Can what happened in Korea be compared to what happened with Libya, a softening approach to the West?

Glenn Kessler: It's too early for that. The process with North Korea has gone on for decades, with ups and many downs. Libya made a decision and stuck to it.

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Glenn Kessler:Okay, back to work again! Thanks for all the questions.

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