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2009/08/04 16:55 KST
Past U.S.-N.K. exchanges suggest visits thaw tension at critical times

  
By Tony Chang
SEOUL, Aug. 4 (Yonhap) -- A surprise visit to North Korea by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who actively engaged North Korea while in office in the 1990s, comes at a critical time for Washington and the international community as they try to reach out to the belligerent state.

   North Korea's media confirmed that Clinton arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday, apparently with a mission to secure the release of two detained American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee of the San Francisco-based media group Current TV.

The two were arrested in mid-March on the North Korea-China border while reporting on refugees fleeing the impoverished state. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor on charges of illegal entry and "hostile acts."

   Citing similarities to a surprise visit by another former U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, in 1994, some are cautiously hoping for a turnaround in the tense relationship between Pyongyang and the Barack Obama administration.

   Carter met with then North Korean President Kim Il-sung when hardliners in Washington were discussing the possibility of a military strike against North Korean nuclear installations, and carried back home messages from Pyongyang that it was willing to negotiate a nuclear freeze.

   Months later, the U.S. and North Korea signed the Geneva Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea's plutonium production in exchange for a set of internationally-financed light water reactors.

   The release of the journalists, which Washington frames as a humanitarian issue, overlaps with efforts by the U.S. and its allies to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and halt its military provocations.

   It is unclear in what capacity Clinton was visiting North Korea, but many see the trip as an opportunity to change the North Korea-U.S. relations, as was achieved by Carter's visit.

   Clinton sought high-level bilateral dialogue with the North during his waning months in office, arranging visits by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and North Korean Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok to their respective capitals.

   The exchanges were praised then as heralding a diplomatic breakthrough, as they followed the North's launch of its first long-range ballistic missile. The two sides also produced a joint communique on reconciliation during Jo's visit to Washington.

   It was under Clinton's administration that the U.S. negotiated the release of two Americans detained in North Korea -- a U.S. Army helicopter pilot whose stray chopper was shot down, and a young man who swam across the Amnok (Yalu) River into the North while drunk.

   Observers are hopeful that Clinton will be able to repeat those successes.

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