Analysts Discuss Bill Clinton's Trip to North Korea

By The NewsHour, The NewsHour - August 4, 2009

GWEN IFILL: North Korea announced today President Kim Jong-il has pardoned two American journalists who'd been held since March. He ordered their release hours after former President Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea for a surprise visit.

Jeffrey Brown has our lead story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The North Korean announcement followed a day of ceremonies and meetings beginning with Mr. Clinton's arrival at the airport in Pyongyang.

In short order, he met with Kim, who rarely meets with foreigners, and who had an apparent stroke a year ago and remains in ill health. But state-run media reported Kim held, quote, "exhaustive talks" with Mr. Clinton.

Later, the former president met with Laura Ling and Euna Lee. The two journalists work for Current TV, a news organization founded by Mr. Clinton's former vice president, Al Gore.

Ling and Lee were arrested in March along the China-North Korea border. They were convicted in June of hostile acts and sentenced to 12 years at hard labor.

Today, Obama administration officials stressed the private nature of Mr. Clinton's visit. At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated that there would be no comment while Mr. Clinton was in North Korea.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: This obviously is a very sensitive topic. We will hope to provide some more detail at a later point. Our focus right now is on ensuring the safety of two journalists.

JEFFREY BROWN: The North Korean news agency said the former president did convey a verbal message from President Obama, but gave no details. White House officials said no such message was relayed.

The North Koreans also reported the discussions included a wide range of issues, and among those greeting the former president this morning was the regime's chief nuclear negotiator.

U.S.-North Korean relations have been tense for months, as talks over the North's nuclear program have been at a standstill and the North Koreans have conducted an underground nuclear test and test-fired a number of long- and medium-range missiles.

This evening, the North Korean news agency announced former President Clinton and his party had left the country. The report did not say if the two American women were on the flight.

U.S. officials said they had no indication yet the Clinton plane had departed.

Joining me now to discuss today's developments, Dennis Wilder, senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff during the second Bush administration. He's now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

And Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy, he frequently travels to North Korea.

Welcome to both of you.

SELIG HARRISON, Center for International Policy: Thank you.

DENNIS WILDER, Former Asia Director, National Security Council: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why now? Why at this time? What's known about what brought this about?

So I think they indicated that they would be very interested in a visit by someone like President Clinton. They made an overture, and the administration decided for the sake of the journalists to take them up on that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Harrison, I mean, it's very famously hard to know what the thinking is in North Korea.

SELIG HARRISON: Well, in this case, the important thing is that was not the administration's baby. The administration did not create this mission; Bill Clinton did.

Bill Clinton went to Seoul, South Korea, in May. He met former President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea, whom he had long admired and worked with as president. Kim Dae-jung said, You're the guy to go to North Korea and not only release the two -- get the release of the two imprisoned journalists, but open up a dialogue with North Korea, set the stage for negotiations.

So Bill Clinton went back from -- this became known in South Korea. The North Koreans knew that Kim Dae-jung had made this proposal. Kim Dae-jung goes back to Washington and makes it known to Hillary and to others that he wants to go.

And this is what led to the whole thing, that you've had a debate, really, in the administration since late May over whether it's appropriate for the husband of the secretary of state to go to a mission like this and also a nervousness, because it's quite clear that Bill Clinton has a very proprietary feeling about the relationship with North Korea.

JEFFREY BROWN: Based on his past?

SELIG HARRISON: When he was president -- well, when he was president, we froze the nuclear program from 1994 to 2002. This was one of his big successes.

So I think that there's been a lot of soul searching within the administration. They're very uncomfortable about this mission, all this emphasis on how private it is and so forth and so on.

So now you're going to have a big discussion within the administration over what he's found out, because he's going to be talking about the conversations he had with Kim Jong-il, which went far beyond the fate of the two young women.

DENNIS WILDER: I very much doubt that the Obama White House gave any kind of real apology or any statement for him to take. I think the White House is, as Mr. Harrison said, a little wary of all of this. They feel that this is a fine amnesty for the two journalists, but they don't want it to look like amnesty for North Korea.

After all, North Korea walked away from the six-party negotiations. It conducted another missile test this year; it conducted a nuclear test this year.

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