North Korea Is Said to Pardon Two American Journalists
SEOUL, South Korea — The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, pardoned two jailed American journalists, the official KCNA news agency has reported, according to Reuters. The report came after former President Bill Clinton met with the reclusive and ailing Mr. Kim in Pyongyang on Tuesday
Mr. Kim granted “a special pardon,” KCNA said in a statement. It was not clear how rapidly the two journalists, Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, might be allowed to leave the country. They were being held near Pyongyang after having been sentenced to 12 years at hard labor for entering North Korea illegally.
The pardon added to speculation among analysts in Seoul that North Korea, after months of raising tensions and hostile rhetoric towards Washington, may be ready to return to dialogue with Washington.
Tensions have been high since a nuclear test by the North on May 25 and the subsequent American-led effort to impose international sanctions against the North.
Administration officials sought to temper suggestions that Mr. Clinton would engage in sweeping discussions with Mr. Kim about North Korea’s nuclear program. His brief, one official said, was strictly limited to the imprisoned journalists
Since its last short-range missile tests in early July, North Korea has refrained from taking any provocative actions, setting the stage for a possible return to dialogue. In recent weeks, it has indicated that it wanted one-on-one talks with Washington. The United States insists that such discussions are possible only within the six-nation talks involving other regional powers, a multilateral forum the North has declared “dead.”
Accompanying Mr. Clinton was John Podesta, who was his last chief of staff at the White House and is now an informal adviser to the Obama administration. Mr. Podesta, the president of the Center for American Progress, a research organization in Washington, is an influential player in Democratic policy circles. Mr. Clinton also brought longtime personal aides, including Douglas Band.
Kang Sok-ju, the first vice foreign minister and Mr. Kim’s most trusted adviser on Pyongyang’s relations with Washington, attended the meeting, and later in the evening the North’s National Defense Commission, the country’s top governing agency chaired by Mr. Kim, hosted a dinner party for Mr. Clinton, state media reported.
Mr. Clinton flew into Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in an unmarked jet early Tuesday morning local time, Central TV, a North Korean station, reported. The White House confirmed the visit on Tuesday, but said it was a private mission.
“While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment,” Mr. Gibbs said in a statement. “We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton’s mission.”
It was widely assumed that Mr. Clinton would not have undertaken the mission without specific assurances that Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee would be released.
The last time an American official met with Mr. Kim was in October 2000, when Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Mr. Clinton’s top envoy, traveled to Pyongyang. Mr. Kim reportedly suffered a stroke last August, raising uncertainty about his health and the future of his regime.
Television footage from Pyongyang showed Mr. Clinton being greeted at the airport by North Korean officials including the chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-gwan and Yang Hyong-sop, the vice parliamentary speaker. The footage showed him smiling and bowing as a young girl presented him with flowers. Photographs released by North Korea showed Mr. Clinton sitting next to a thin, though not sickly looking, Mr. Kim.
The two journalists were detained by soldiers on March 17 near the North Korean border with China. In June, they were convicted and sentenced for “committing hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry.”
The Obama administration had been considering for weeks whether to send a special envoy to North Korea. The visit by Mr. Clinton, even if officially a private effort, was clearly undertaken with the blessings of the White House, and marked his first diplomatic mission abroad on behalf of the administration. Mr. Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been deeply involved in the journalists’ case.
Mr. Clinton is the first former American president to travel to North Korea since 1994, when Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang — with Mr. Clinton’s half-hearted blessing — to try to strike a deal to suspend the North’s nuclear work in return for concessions from the United States. Ultimately that led to a 1994 nuclear accord, which froze North Korea’s production of plutonium until the deal fell apart in 2003.
As president, Mr. Clinton was initially ambivalent about Mr. Carter’s intervention. But Mr. Carter’s trip also proved that a former president could break a logjam, and Mr. Clinton has some cards to play with the North. In December, 2000, the last days of his presidency, he came close to traveling to the country in hopes of striking a deal to contain North Korea’s missiles. Mr. Clinton ultimately decided not to go because the deal was not pre-cooked, and his advisers feared he would be appearing desperate for an end-of-presidency deal.
Relations with the North deteriorated rapidly under the Bush administration, with the North renouncing the 1994 nuclear agreement, harvesting enough plutonium for approximately eight nuclear weapons and conducting a nuclear test. Mr. Obama never had time to get talks off the ground with the North before it conducted a second nuclear test and terminated the one significant deal it struck with the Bush administration. It is in the process of restarting its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon.
It is not clear whether the timing is propitious for Mr. Clinton to revive the broader relationship, with Mr. Kim in failing health after a stroke last summer and the North Korean leadership facing an apparent succession struggle.
In fact, the jailing of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee came amid a period of heightened tensions following the second nuclear device in May and the subsequent launchings of several ballistic missiles.
In recent months, the White House has marshaled support at the United Nations for strict sanctions against the North Korean government, including a halt to all weapons sales and a crackdown on its financial ties.
But the administration has tried to keep its diplomatic campaign separate from this case, which American officials have portrayed as a humanitarian issue, appealing to North Korea to return the women to their families.
“Their detainment is not something that we’ve linked to other issues, and we hope the North Koreans don’t do that, either,” Mr. Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said to reporters in June.
At the time they were detained, Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee were on a reporting assignment from Current TV, a San Francisco-based media company co-founded by Al Gore, the former vice president. They were researching a report about North Korean women sold through human traffickers and refugees who had fled to search for food in China.
The administration initially said the charges against the women were “baseless.” But last month, Mrs. Clinton said the United States was now seeking “amnesty” for the women, signaling a readiness to acknowledge some degree of culpability in return for their freedom.
“The two journalists and their families have expressed great remorse for this incident, and I think everyone is very sorry that it happened,” Mrs. Clinton said in early July. “What we hope for now is that these two young women would be granted amnesty through the North Korean system and be allowed to return home to their families as soon as possible.”
This photo was released by China's Xinhua News Agency of the two female American journalists preparing to board former President Bill Clinton's chartered jet.