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2009/08/06 10:37 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 66 (August 6, 2009)


Bill Clinton Visits Pyongyang, Meets with Kim Jong-il on Bilateral Issues

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a surprise two-day visit to North Korea this week, imbuing regional issues with significant political and diplomatic implications, not to mention the purely bilateral issue involving two American journalists detained for months by the socialist country. The two former wartime foes are at loggerheads over Pyongyang's withdrawal from the six-party talks to end the North's nuclear weapons program.

   North Korean leader Kim Jong-il met with the former U.S. president in Pyongyang on Aug. 4 and received a "verbal message" from U.S. President Barack Obama, the North's state media said. Clinton arrived in North Korea earlier in the day in a trip apparently aimed at winning the release of the two detained American journalists.

   "Bill Clinton courteously conveyed a verbal message of U.S. President Barack Obama to Kim Jong-il," the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. "Kim Jong-il expressed thanks for this. He welcomed Clinton's visit to the DPRK (North Korea) and had an exhaustive conversation with him," it said.

   In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, however, dismissed the KCNA's report, describing the visit as a "solely private mission" and reaffirming that the journalists' detainment is a humanitarian issue that has nothing to do with the current crisis stemming from North Korea's nuclear and missile tests.

   "That's not true," Robert Gibbs told reporters. He would not respond further, adding only, "We will hope to provide some more detail at a later point. Our focus right now is on ensuring the safety of two journalists that are in North Korea."

   The National Defense Commission that is chaired by Kim Jong-il, and which oversees the country's military, later hosted a dinner for Clinton and his entourage at the state guest house, according to the media report.

   Just hours after the dinner meeting, Kim announced a pardon for the American journalists, the KCNA said, adding Clinton "courteously conveyed a verbal message of U.S. President Barack Obama expressing profound thanks for this and reflecting views on ways of improving the relations between the two countries."

   North Korea's media report said there was "a wide-ranging exchange of views on the matters of common concern" between Kim and Clinton. North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju and a Workers' Party department director, Kim Yang-gon, attended the meeting, it said.

   Clinton also met with the North's ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, who is the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, the KCNA said, adding that Clinton, while meeting with Kim Jong-il and other officials, "had candid and in-depth discussions on the pending issues between the DPRK and the U.S. in a sincere atmosphere and reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement of them."

   The report did not elaborate on what was discussed. However, Kim Jong-il allegedly asked for a package solution to the nuclear standoff, including normalization of ties, massive economic aid and establishment of a permanent regime to replace the fragile armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War.

   Clinton and his entourage, together with the two freed U.S. journalists, flew back to the U.S. in the morning of Aug. 5. Before departing from Pyongyang, Clinton waved to North Korean officials and others seeing him off. "They were seen off at the airport by Yang Hyong-sop, vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, and Kim Kye-gwan, vice minister of foreign affairs," the report said. Kim and Yang had received Clinton at the airport in Pyongyang a day earlier.

   Laura Ling and Euna Lee, female reporters from the San Francisco-based media group Current TV, were arrested March 17 near the North Korea-China border while reporting on North Korean defectors. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor by the North on charges of illegal entry and hostile acts. Current TV was co-founded by Al Gore, who was Clinton's vice president.

   Clinton's surprise visit raised hopes for renewed momentum for dialogue and a breakthrough in the long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks. Sources in Seoul said Clinton went into Pyongyang assured of their release, the two sides having effectively completed necessary talks through Pyongyang's diplomatic mission to the U.N., known as "the New York channel."

   The visit coincides with growing signs of a power succession process in Pyongyang, with Kim Jong-il widely believed to have picked his third and youngest son, Jong-un, as his heir. Kim reportedly suffered a stroke last year and is growing frail, giving urgency to the need to keep his regime stable through means that include better relations with Washington.

   The U.S. reportedly planned to send Gore as a special envoy, but the North rejected the offer, apparently in hopes that Washington would send a top-level government official authorized to discuss pending political issues.

   The Obama administration, however, has maintained that it will not link the journalists' detention, a humanitarian issue, with the nuclear agenda. Clinton was apparently a compromise choice, saving face for both sides.

   Shortly after his retirement in 2001, the former president established the "William J. Clinton Foundation," with the stated mission of strengthening people's capacity to meet the challenges of global interdependence.

   The North withdrew from the six-party talks after firing a long-range rocket in April and conducting a second nuclear test the following month. In response to those provocations, the international community imposed stiff sanctions on North Korea through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874.

   In addition to freeing the two U.S. journalists, Bill Clinton inevitably bore the trickier mission of laying the groundwork to resume talks with North Korea with his unannounced visit to Pyongyang, experts said.

   As a civilian, the former president is unauthorized to cut any official deals with North Korea other than matters concerning the detained reporters, but many perceive the visit as a prelude for negotiations on the so-called "comprehensive" package of concessions including normalized diplomatic relations with the North that Washington offered last month in return for complete and irreversible denuclearization.

   After Clinton's term, relations between the two nations waned under his successor, George W. Bush. Ties seemed to look up with a breakthrough deal in the six-party talks, but were frayed again by the end of Bush's term, with the six-party talks being suspended over nuclear protocol issues. Anticipation spread among North Koreans for improved relations under the Democrat President Barack Obama, but the contrary occurred in the aftermath of the North's rocket launch and second nuclear test.

   The Obama administration is now avidly campaigning to make clear that it will not compromise until full denuclearization of the North is fulfilled. With the new U.S. policy came international sanctions issued by the U.N. Security Council under Resolution 1874, adopted in June.

   The sanctions eventually forced a North Korean ship last month to return from a trip it had embarked on, reportedly carrying weapons. Faced with overwhelming pressure from all sides, North Korea on July 24 issued an overture signaling its willingness to sit down with the United States for nuclear talks. But it continued to boycott the six-party dialogue.

   The North has regretfully held the 42-year-old South Korean man incommunicado since late March, accusing him of criticizing the socialist nation's political system and attempting to persuade a North Korean woman to defect. His whereabouts are unknown to Seoul officials. Pyongyang is also holding four crew members of a South Korean fishing boat that strayed into North Korean waters last week.

   Meanwhile, concerns are mounting over a possible loss of international unity to pressure North Korea into returning to the six-party nuclear talks. "While gaining the freedom of the two journalists would be a welcome development, Clinton's mission risks undermining ongoing international efforts to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons," said Bruce Klingner, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "The Obama administration should have, instead, insisted on resolving the issue through existing diplomatic channels, including special envoy Ambassador Stephen Bosworth."

   The scholar also expressed worries about the response from China, North Korea's staunchest communist ally, which has reluctantly agreed to international sanctions on North Korea. "Even if Clinton focuses solely on gaining the release of the journalists, China and Russia would seize upon any perceived diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea as justification for rescinding sanctions imposed against Pyongyang for repeatedly violating U.N. resolutions," he said.

   North Korea earlier this year rejected Washington's proposal to send Bosworth, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, to Pyongyang to discuss the stalled six-party talks.

   In calling for the early release of the two journalists, U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton has warned the North not to link their detention to the crisis created by North Korea's second nuclear test in May. She said the issue "should be viewed as a humanitarian matter."

   Secretary Clinton recently said that "full normalization of relations, a permanent peace regime, and significant energy and economic assistance are all possible in the context of full and verifiable denuclearization." But she said the U.S. will not accept "half measures" nor reward provocations, warning that North Korea "will face international isolation and the unrelenting pressure of global sanctions" until it agrees to denuclearization.

   Whether or not Bill Clinton's visit produces a breakthrough, the visit appears to be a diplomatic gain for the reclusive communist state. "The North Korean side will be very pleased that their American hostage gambit has lured former President Clinton to the DPRK," said Nicholas N. Eberstadt, Henry Wendt Scholar in political economy at the American Economic Institute.

   "After eight years of dealing with his administration, Pyongyang will be confident they know how to play him," he said. "The North Korean side never gives anything away for free. If the Clinton visit succeeds in wresting loose the two hostage U.S. journalists, it will be in exchange, in Pyongyang's estimate, for valuable American concessions on the nuclear question or the U.S.-South Korean alliance."