The Risk And Reward In Clinton's N. Korea Mission

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Two Journalist i

Pictures of journalists Laura Ling (L) and Euna Lee were displayed during a public vigil in San Francisco, Calif., June 24, 2009. Reuters/Landov hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters/Landov
Two Journalist

Pictures of journalists Laura Ling (L) and Euna Lee were displayed during a public vigil in San Francisco, Calif., June 24, 2009.

Reuters/Landov
A young North Korean girl welcomes former President Bill Clinton with a bouquet of flowers. i

North Korea welcomed former U.S. 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 hide caption

itoggle caption Korean Central News Agency/AP
A young North Korean girl welcomes former President Bill Clinton with a bouquet of flowers.

North Korea welcomed former U.S. 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

Former President Bill Clinton's unusual diplomatic mission to North Korea on Tuesday secured the release of two American journalists, but it also raised questions about whether the visit risked undermining broader U.S. interests.

The Obama administration called Clinton's mission "solely private," but critics say the visit was a propaganda coup for the North Korean regime and a reward for months of nuclear and missile tests and bellicose rhetoric.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il issued special pardons to two American journalists who were facing sentences of 12 years in a labor camp, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.

In Washington, Obama administration officials stressed that the Clinton mission was requested by the families of Euna Lee, 36, and Laura Ling, 32, reporters for Current TV, a media company that is co-owned by former Vice President Al Gore.

The visit by a former U.S. president comes at a time of high tension between the two countries, after North Korea defied a United Nations Security Council resolution by conducting a nuclear test and test-firing ballistic missiles.

It was the North Korean leader's first visit with a prominent Western figure since he reportedly suffered a stroke a year ago.

Was Clinton's Visit Worth The Risk?

Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor who served as director for Asian affairs in the George W. Bush White House, says the Clinton mission was worth it.

Cha notes that no two American civilians have ever been put in this situation by North Korea.

The two reporters were sentenced to 12 years at hard labor by a North Korean court for allegedly entering the country illegally and engaging in unspecified "hostile acts." Lee and Ling were reportedly working on a story about the abuse of refugees who managed to make their way into China.

"I don't think it's in anybody's interest to see them thrown into a labor camp, so in that sense, while it does give [the North Korean government] more attention, I think it's for a very good cause," Cha says.

But Peter Brooks, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation, says the former president's visit and the release pose the danger that the U.S. will be seen as condoning North Korea's bad behavior.

"I think there's a lot of concern that we may be entering into a moral hazard here where we're actually rewarding North Korea's behavior, which I'm sure they will try to turn into a propaganda coup, not only for the international community but for their domestic audience as well," Brooks says.

A news release issued by North Korea earlier today said that Clinton had long and wide-ranging discussions with North Korean officials, suggesting that there was more on the agenda than the two journalists.

An Opening For Broader Talks?

Scott Snyder, director for U.S.-Korea policy at the Asia Foundation, says it was likely that the North Koreans would perceive this as an opening for wider talks. "In North Korea, everything is political," says Snyder. "And so the idea that there could be some sort of artificial distinction between a humanitarian mission and a political mission is ludicrous from the North Korean point of view, and so I'm sure that the former president is being asked all kinds of political questions. The point is that as a private visitor, he's not in a position to commit the U.S. government in any particular way."

North Korea announced recently that it was withdrawing from the six-party talks, a long-running negotiation that included the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and North and South Korea, in discussions aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The North has long maintained that it wants bilateral negotiations with the U.S., something that successive U.S. administrations have refused.

U.S.-North Korean relations reached a high point during Clinton's presidency, when he recruited former President Jimmy Carter to undertake a peace mission in 1994, resulting in a deal for a freeze on North Korea's work on a plutonium-based nuclear reactor.

Snyder says that at the very least the Obama administration is going to be interested in debriefing Clinton on any proposals that the North Koreans may have made during his trip.

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