Former US president Bill Clinton’s sudden trip behind North Korea’s iron curtain capped a delicate, four-month effort designed to free two jailed US reporters while limiting a publicity bonanza for the Stalinist state.
Top US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, late on Tuesday described the intense diplomatic drive to win the freedom of the two young journalists, hours after they flew out of North Korea with the former president.
It emerged that North Korea, seeking legitimacy denied by a global isolation campaign following its nuclear test and missile launches, specifically asked for former president and global statesman Clinton to make the trip.
The officials said former US vice president Al Gore, who set up Current TV for which the two reporters Laura Ling (凌志美) and Euna Lee worked, had also played a vigorous role in liaising between the reporters’ families and the US government.
Before reviving their partnership, Clinton, meanwhile, sought assurances from officials in US President Barack Obama’s administration that his mission had a chance of success, before deciding to take on the job, the officials said.
While in Pyongyang, Clinton had rare hour-and-a-quarter-long talks on Tuesday with reclusive leader Kim Jong-il, with whom he often jousted in a game of long-distance geopolitical brinkmanship during his eight years in the White House.
The former president then had a two-hour dinner with Kim, the officials said, but declined to speculate on the value of the intelligence he would bring home after his priceless glimpse inside the sealed North Korean regime.
US officials are especially interested in the state of Kim’s health, after he reportedly suffered a stroke last year, and in indications that he has prepared a political succession to his third son Kim Jong-un.
Ling and Lee were arrested in March while reporting near North Korea’s border with China and sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor.
The momentum toward their release began to unfold in the middle of last month, during one of the periodical calls the women were allowed to make to relatives back home in the US.
The women told their families Pyongyang would be prepared to pardon them in return for a visit by Clinton to ask for their release.
On the weekend of July 24 and July 25, top Obama administration officials spoke to Clinton to assess his willingness to undertake such a humanitarian mission, the officials said.
The former president, now a globe-trotting humanitarian, said he would be ready to go if there was a “reasonable chance” of winning the reporters’ release, one official said.
Meanwhile, Obama administration officials cranked up the pace of an already intense behind-the-scenes diplomatic effort, facilitated by the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, as Washington and North Korea have no diplomatic relations.
“During the course of these discussions, it was insisted that the North Koreans acknowledge, as former president Clinton’s visit was not any part of a negotiation, it was not in any way connected to the nuclear issue,” one senior official said.
“The North Koreans confirmed to us directly that they accepted his visit in a private capacity that exclusively focused on the humanitarian purpose of releasing the two Americans,” the official said.
Critics of Obama, and the Clinton administration before it, have complained that high profile missions like that of the former president “reward” North Korea for belligerence and encourage more erratic behavior.
US officials also briefed key US allies on the purpose of Clinton’s possible trip and discussed it with key regional players Russia and China, explaining that it was a purely personal humanitarian mission.
They made clear that Clinton’s journey was “not in any way” linked to the nuclear issue, one of the officials said, adding that the former president made no apology to the North Koreans for the conduct of the journalists.
Clinton had one final briefing with key Obama administration officials on the situation in Pyongyang and efforts to free the journalists on Saturday, at his residence in Washington, the officials said.
They also said Clinton had not spoken personally to Obama about his mission.
They also said that they had yet to get a full debriefing on Clinton’s talks with Kim, though stressed that the need to free the two reporters was the main topic of the encounter.
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