Former US president Clinton meets Kim Jong Il


Seoul: Former US president Bill Clinton arrived Tuesday in Pyongyang and met North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in an unannounced visit aimed at securing the release of two American journalists held by the Stalinist state for months.

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Clinton was greeted by high-ranking North Korean officials, including Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s top nuclear negotiator, North Korea’s state-run Central Television said. He later met Kim Jong Il, whose health has been in question since he reportedly suffered from a stroke last year.

North Korean media reported that the two men engaged in “serious conversation”. Clinton was also welcomed by a parliamentary defence committee, which hosted a dinner with the former president at the prestigious Yongbin Hall.

Clinton’s mission also raised hope that discussions on a broad set of issues could reverse an escalation of tensions triggered by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.

But North Korea insisted the visit was purely a humanitarian one designed to address the status of the journalists.

“We welcome Clinton’s visit in Pyongyang as a humanitarian event to free the two American journalists,” said Yoon Sang Hyeon, a spokesman for the ruling Korean Workers Party.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs issued a statement in Washington confirming Clinton was in North Korea but did not offer further details.

“While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment,” he said. “We do not want to jeopardize the success of former president Clinton’s mission.”

Euna Lee and Laura Ling were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labour after North Korea said they had illegally crossed its border when they were arrested in March. The US has continuously called for their release but has been careful to avoid provoking the situation.

Seoul analysts expect Clinton will likely be able to return home with the American women after his brief stay in Pyongyang.

“Clinton is unlikely to return empty-handed when we consider the welcoming pitch that North Korea unusually showed at his arrival,” said a government official in Seoul who asked to remain anonymous.

The trip by Clinton, the husband of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, also came at a time when talks with North Korea over its nuclear programme have stalled. Pyongyang is reportedly seeking direct talks with Washington, while the US wants to continue six-nation negotiations that also involve China, South Korea, Japan and Russia with the aim of ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

Kim Yong Hyeon, a professor of North Korean studies at South Korea’s Dongguk University, said the 42nd president’s visit might be the best chance for North Korea to take negotiations with the US to a higher level.

“Besides, Kim may prove to the world that he is well enough to meet a US official,” professor Kim said.

Lee and Ling were arrested in mid-March on the Chinese-North Korean border while working on a story about North Koreans fleeing their impoverished country. They were working for the US-based online broadcaster Current TV, which was co-founded by Al Gore, who served as vice president under Clinton.

Yonhap quoted a source in Seoul as saying the US and North Korea had been in “active consultations” in recent weeks about Lee and Ling.

The US government, now headed by Clinton’s fellow Democrat President Barack Obama, has refused to link Lee and Ling’s release with talks over the North Korean nuclear programme. The White House denied a Yonhap report the Clinton was carrying a specific message from Obama.

Pyongyang withdrew from the six-party talks after being internationally condemned for launching a long-range rocket in April and conducting its second nuclear test in May, but the negotiations had stalled months earlier.

Clinton’s visit prompted hope for the release of the US journalists at a time of uncertainty about the fate of a South Korean manager at a jointly run North-South industrial park. He was arrested in March for allegedly criticising the totalitarian regime.

North Korea has also remained silent on the fate of a South Korean fishing boat after claiming at the weekend that the vessel had violated its territorial waters.

The fishing boat with four crew members aboard is believed to have accidently strayed into North Korea waters last week because of a malfunction of its global positioning system.