LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. On a morning where two Americans came home.
Ms. LAURA LING (Journalist, Current TV): We could feel your love all the way in North Korea. It is what kept us going in the darkest of hours. It is what sustained our faith that we would come home.
INSKEEP: Laura Ling thanked friends, family, even strangers for their thoughts while in North Korean custody. Ling and another reporter, Euna Lee, returned home this morning after a diplomatic mission by former President Bill Clinton. This morning we'll ask about that mission's larger meaning. Officially, the ex-president acted in a private capacity. One president is whether his mission has wider public implications.
Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.
ANTHONY KUHN: In Pyongyang, Mr. Clinton held what the official Korean central news agency described as exhaustive talks with leader Kim Jong-il. Kim and top North Korean officials then feted Mr. Clinton at a two-hour dinner. One picture showed Kim in his characteristic khaki jumpsuit, smiling broadly and Clinton next to him looking impassive. In other words, it had all the visual trappings of a state visit. Professor Emeritus Kim Jae-bum of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul, says the imagery of a former American leader coming to mend ties would have looked familiar to North Koreans.
Professor Emeritus KIM JAE-BUM (Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, Seoul): The North Korean people would perceive this visit is a kind of victory of the Kim Jong-il regime, vis-a-vis the United States. It's kind of an analogy of inducing former President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang in 1994.
KUHN: North Korean media reported that Mr. Clinton apologized for the journalists' actions and conveyed President Obama's gratitude for their release. Washington has denied both of these assertions. At any rate, Kim pardoned journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, and they flew to Los Angeles on Mr. Clinton's chartered jet, to an emotional reunion with their families. Sun Jian(ph), an international relations expert at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says Clinton may have visited Pyongyang as an ordinary citizen, but his entourage was not so ordinary.
Professor SUN JIAN (International Relations Expert, Tsinghua University, Beijing): The most important thing is who joined Clinton. You see the participants, John Podesta, who run Obama's campaign last year, and also David Straub, who was the director of the North Korean desk at state. So this is the key people, very close to Obama administration.
KUHN: Speaking on background, a senior U.S. administration official said that in mid July, North Korea informed the detained reporters that they could be freed if Mr. Clinton came as an envoy. The official said that Washington then confirmed with North Korea, South Korea and Japan, that Mr. Clinton's mission would be only about the reporters not about diplomatic ties and not about nuclear weapons. All parties agreed. Lee Jung-Hoon, a professor of international relation at Yonsei University in Seoul, says Kim Jong-il may have calculated that he could use the journalists to pressure Washington.
Professor LEE JUNG-HOON (International Relation, Yonsei University, Seoul): But it just backfired. It backfired in a way that I think it really made Obama's new policy towards North Korea rigid. In fact, I think he's been much more vocal in raising the stakes of the sanctions, more so than President Bush. And I think North Korea felt rather stifled.
KUHN: North Korea may now be feeling just isolated enough to resume stalled talks on its nuclear weapons program. But critics of North Korea worry that the release of the journalists could lead the international community to ease sanctions on Pyongyang and lose sight of the goal of ridding the North of its nuclear weapons. Again, Yonsei University's Lee Jung-Hoon.
Prof. JUNG-HOON: I don't think North Korea will return to the six-party talks. And I don't think North Korea will, any time soon, be engaged in a dialogue that would lead to the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program.
KUHN: Of course, what matters for now, he says, is that the two American reporters are home, safe.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.