Seoul: Former US president Bill Clinton left North Korea on Wednesday with two American journalists, having secured their release in a meeting with the hermit state’s leader who a US official said was not promised any rewards.
The official said that Clinton talked to North Korea’s leadership about the positive things that could flow from freeing Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been held since March.
The Obama administration official did not provide specifics although some analysts have speculated that Clinton’s trip — which included a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il — could possibly open the way to direct nuclear disarmament talks.
Analysts said that Washington faced a tricky task of trying to convince North Korea to give up dreams of becoming a nuclear weapons power without being seen to reward it for repeated military acts or ignoring the demands of others in the region.
“President Clinton had made clear that this was a purely private humanitarian mission,” the US official said in Washington after Kim granted the journalists a pardon and allowed them to leave with Clinton and fly to Los Angeles.
“North Korea had agreed in advance that Clinton’s trip would not be linked to the nuclear issue,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said that North Korea would face deeper isolation if it continued provocative behaviour that has included nuclear and missile tests. “Washington would maintain efforts to enforce UN sanctions imposed on North Korea over its 25 May nuclear test,” the official added.
The two journalists, who work for Current TV, an American TV outlet co-founded by Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, were arrested for illegally crossing into the North from China.
They were each sentenced to 12 years hard labour in June.
Television footage showed the two journalists wearing green and red shirts and carrying luggage, greeted by Clinton as they boarded a plane. Clinton put his hand over his heart and then gave a final salute to North Korean officials at the airport.
What was discussed?
Financial markets in Tokyo and Seoul largely ignored the visit, although some South Korean traders said that it did add a more positive atmosphere to what has been a string of negative reports over the North in recent months.
There were questions about what Clinton had discussed with Kim beyond the fate of the reporters and what North Korea might expect in return. The US official said that Clinton likely expressed his view on North Korean denuclearisation in talks with Kim.
In North Korean media photographs of the meeting, Kim was smiling and looked in reasonable health after speculation he was seriously ill. Kim was suspected of suffering a stroke last year.
“Regardless of what the US administration says, the Clinton and Kim meeting signals the start of direct bargaining. It’s a matter of time when US-North bilateral talks begin,” South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo daily said.
Nicholas Szechenyi, northeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that the biggest risk was that North Korea would demand a similar US approach to the nuclear issue.
North Korea last year quit five years of on-and-off six-party negotiations with the US, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea and has since suggested it will only talk with Washington.
“We’ve seen this pattern before and it could send a very bad signal to the region if the administration suddenly shifts to a bilateral approach,” said Szechenyi.
South Korea and Japan both have politically sensitive concerns about citizens held in North Korea.
Reject bilateral talks
“I think the US should resolutely reject bilateral talks. They won’t be accepted by other east Asian countries,” said North Korea expert Zhang Liangui at the Central Party School in China.
Japanese chief cabinet secretary Takeo Kawamura said that Tokyo welcomed the release of the journalists but wanted North Korea to take note of the message from the international community in UN resolutions (and) quickly return to the six-party talks.
Pyongyang, craving the recognition that direct negotiations with the Obama administration would bring, painted the meeting between Clinton and Kim as high-level talks.
“The two had candid and in-depth discussions on the pending issues between the DPRK (North Korea) and the US in a sincere atmosphere and reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement of (the two journalists)”, the North’s KCNA news agency reported.
In comments that could well make US officials wince, KCNA said: “Clinton expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong Il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists against the DPRK after illegally intruding into it.”
The US official said that Clinton did not offer any apology from Washington.
Clinton, husband of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was the highest-level American to visit the reclusive state since his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, went there in 2000.