Bill Clinton In North Korea To Free U.S. Journalists

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North Korea welcomed former President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang i

North Korea welcomed former President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang with flowers and hearty handshakes Tuesday as he arrived in the communist nation on a surprise mission to bring home two jailed American journalists. Korean Central News Agency/AP Photo hide caption

itoggle caption Korean Central News Agency/AP Photo
North Korea welcomed former President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang

North Korea welcomed former President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang with flowers and hearty handshakes Tuesday as he arrived in the communist nation on a surprise mission to bring home two jailed American journalists.

Korean Central News Agency/AP Photo
N. Korean vice parliamentary speaker Yang Hyong greets i

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is greeted by North Korean vice parliamentary speaker Yang Hyong Sop. APTN/AP Photo hide caption

itoggle caption APTN/AP Photo
N. Korean vice parliamentary speaker Yang Hyong greets

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is greeted by North Korean vice parliamentary speaker Yang Hyong Sop.

APTN/AP Photo

Former President Bill Clinton has arrived in North Korea to try to win the freedom of two American journalists. Washington has been pushing for amnesty for Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were sentenced to 12 years' hard labor after being arrested on the China-North Korea border in March.

North Korea's official news agency reported that Clinton and his party were met at the airport in Pyongyang by parliamentary official Yang Hyong Sop, chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan and a young girl bearing a bouquet of flowers.

The report did not mention Ling and Lee. North Korea convicted them of illegally entering the country and other unspecified crimes.

Park Young-ho, a researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, says that in order to get them out, Clinton may have to somehow acknowledge that the reporters violated North Korean laws.

"He may extend some thanks to the North Korean government, if North Korea officially announces that they will release those two American reporters," Park says.

When Ling and Lee were detained on the border, they were reporting for San Francisco-based Internet media outlet Current TV, founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

Selig Harrison of the Washington D.C.-based Center for International Policy has advised the Ling family. He says that in May, Gore sought permission from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to go to Pyongyang to try to help free the journalists, but that didn't happen.

"I thought the administration should not be holding back on this, which they were doing on the argument that the United States shouldn't seem to be bargaining for the release of these two journalists," Harrison says. "They should be released for humanitarian reasons, and the U.S. position has been to separate their release from any political negotiations, but the fact is you can't do that."

Yang Sung-chul was South Korean ambassador to the U.S. during the Clinton administration.

"It seems like the sentence alone is too harsh," Yang says. "And the way they conducted the issue was like a kangaroo court. So it's more like a hostage, rather than somebody who committed a crime of the country."

Bill Clinton is in Pyongyang as a private citizen. But Harrison says Washington should authorize him to explore the possibility of reopening a broader dialogue with Pyongyang.

The Obama administration offered direct talks with Pyongyang early on, but North Korea refused. Later it conducted a second nuclear test and several rocket launches. The United Nations responded with sanctions.

Now, Harrison says, North Korea wants the US to extend diplomatic recognition first before it discusses its nuclear weapons programs.

"Their position now is that they want normalization of relations as a precondition for serious moves to denuclearize," Harrison says. "But they did make clear in January that they are willing to cap the program at present levels."

The White House isn't commenting. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement, "We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton's mission."

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