Report: N. Korea to free U.S. journalists
SEOUL, South Korea - North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has pardoned two jailed American journalists and ordered their release following an unannounced meeting with former President Bill Clinton, media reports said Tuesday.
Clinton met earlier Tuesday with Kim after arriving in Pyongyang on a surprise visit, holding "exhaustive" talks that covered a wide range of topics, state-run media said.
Clinton traveled to communist North Korea on a mission to try to secure the release of Americans Euna Lee, 36, and Laura Ling, 32, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture who were arrested along the Chinese-North Korean border in March and sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry and engaging in "hostile acts."
Clinton's landmark visit, which was not announced in advance by North Korea or the U.S., comes at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, foes during the Korean War of the 1950s, over the regime's nuclear program.
North Korea in recent months has conducted a nuclear test and test-fired an array of ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, with Washington leading the push to punish Pyongyang for its defiance.
It's only the second visit to Pyongyang by a former U.S. leader. Jimmy Carter traveled to North Korea for talks with Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 in a groundbreaking meeting during a time of similar tensions.
Clinton's meeting with Kim would be the notoriously reclusive North Korean leader's first with a prominent Western figure since Kim reportedly suffered a stroke a year ago, sparking questions about the future of the nation he controls with absolute authority.
Though Clinton was in North Korea on a private basis, his visit was treated by North Korea as a high-profile visit, with senior officials — including Kim Kye Gwan, the vice foreign minister who serves as the country's chief nuclear negotiator — meeting him on the tarmac.
Handshakes and flowers
Footage from the APTN television news agency showed the arriving Clinton exchanging warm handshakes with the officials and accepting a bouquet of flowers from a schoolgirl.
Kim later hosted a banquet for Clinton at the state guesthouse, Radio Pyongyang and the Korean Central Broadcasting Station reported.
"This is a very potentially rewarding trip. Not only is it likely to resolve the case of the two American journalists detained in North Korea for many months, but it could be a very significant opening and breaking this downward cycle of tension and recrimination between the U.S. and North Korea," Mike Chinoy, author of "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis," said in Beijing.
Lee, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, is married and has a 4-year-old daughter in Los Angeles; a native Californian, Ling is the married younger sister of TV journalist Lisa Ling.
Clinton's administration had rocky but relatively good relations with Pyongyang, and both he and Gore, his vice president, had been named as possible envoys to bring back Lee and Ling. Also mentioned was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who in the 1990s traveled twice to North Korea to secure the freedom of detained Americans.
However, the decision to send the former president was kept quiet. A senior U.S. official told reporters traveling Tuesday with Hillary Rodham Clinton that the White House would not comment on the trip to Pyongyang until the mission was complete.
"While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said later in a statement from Washington. "We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton's mission."
In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists said it was encouraged by reports about Clinton's trip.
"This is welcome news and we are pleased to see movement in this case," said Bob Dietz, the group's Asia program coordinator. "The fate of these two women should not be linked to broader issues on the Korean peninsula, and to see both sides make a move toward the release of these reporters will bring some relief to them, their families and friends."