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Former President Bill Clinton is in North Korea today. His mission is to help free two U.S. journalists who were imprisoned after they strayed into the country five months ago. Mr. Clinton may have another mission as well: observers are watching to see if the former president can use this visit to improve relations between North Korea and the outside world.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN: North Korea's official news agency reported that former President 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 journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. North Korea convicted them of illegally entering the country and other unspecified crimes. They were sentenced in June to 12 years hard labor.

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

Mr. PARK YOUNG-HO (Korea Institute for National Unification): He may extending some thanks to the North Korean government, if North Korea officially announced that they will release those two American reporters.

KUHN: Ling and Lee were detained in May on North Korea's border with China. 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.

Mr. SELIG HARRISON (Center for International Policy): 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; 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.

KUHN: Yang Sung-chul was South Korean ambassador to the U.S. during the Clinton administration. He says that any attempt by Pyongyang to appear lenient by releasing the journalists is unlikely to get far.

Mr. YANG SUNG-CHUL (Former South Korean Ambassador to the U.S.): It seems like the sentence alone is too harsh, 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.

KUHN: Bill Clinton is in Pyongyang as a private citizen. But Selig 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 the North declined and later 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.

Mr. HARRIS: Their position now is that they want normalization of relations as a precondition for serious moves to denuclearize. But they did make clear in January that they are prepared to cap the program at present levels.

KUHN: An official traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the State Department would not comment while Bill Clinton's mission is still in progress.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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