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(ROUNDUP) Clinton fulfills his mission, meets N. Korea's needs

All Headlines 15:10 August 05, 2009

(ATTN: COMBINES earlier stories to wrap up; CHANGES slug)
By Kim Hyun

SEOUL, Aug. 5 (Yonhap) -- Former U.S. President Bill Clinton departed North Korea early Wednesday with two American journalists whose release was his key mission.

The reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, left Pyongyang with Clinton just hours after they were granted a special pardon by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. They had been detained since mid-March for crossing illegally into the secretive state.

"Bill Clinton, former president of the United States, and his party left here today by air," Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency said. Television footage showed the women, one wearing crimson top and the other in green, boarding an unmarked plane that brought Clinton to the North Korean capital less than 24 hours earlier.

They were bound for Los Angeles, where the reporters were to be reunited with their families, Clinton's spokesman, Matt McKenna, said in an e-mailed statement.

North Korea received Clinton with a welcome befitting a head of state, a potential sign that Pyongyang wants to mend frayed relations with Washington.

Kim, 67, held an "exhaustive conversation" and attended a banquet hosted for the former U.S. leader, according to North Korean media reports. It was Kim's first encounter with a high-level U.S. figure since he reportedly suffered a stroke last year.

Their meeting was "candid" and "sincere," the KCNA said, adding Clinton's visit "will contribute to deepening the understanding between the DPRK (North Korea) and the U.S. and building the bilateral confidence."

North Korea said that incumbent U.S. President Barack Obama sent a verbal message to Kim through Clinton, in which he expressed his "profound thanks" for Kim's pardon and expressed "views on ways of improving the relations between the two countries."

Washington refuted the North's claim.

"That's not true," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters in Washington, emphasizing that Clinton's trip was "solely private" and focused on freeing the detained journalists.

"We look at detainment and other issues separate," Gibbs said. "We always hope that the North Koreans would look at it the same way."

Photographs released by North Korean media showed Kim in his trademark khaki jumper, smiling broadly next to a consistently stern-faced Clinton.

The former U.S. president's visit came amid increasing speculation that North Korea is in the midst of a power succession. Kim is widely believed to have chosen his third and youngest son, Jong-un, as his heir.

The North Korean leader's failing health has made regime stability a key priority, according to observers, who say that may be motivating his desire for better ties with Washington.

Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst with the Sejong Institute, a non-governmental think tank in Seoul, said Kim likely prepared himself to appear in good physical condition for his meeting with Clinton. He presented himself as a negotiating partner who can still sit down with foreign leaders and make critical decisions, including on his country's nuclear program, Cheong said.

"Before the meeting, there were concerns in the U.S. about whether he would be able to meet Clinton because of his health condition," Cheong said.

The big question was whether Clinton, whose wife now serves as secretary of state, had the leeway to address larger issues with Pyongyang, such as the nuclear standoff or overall bilateral relations. If the KCNA reports accurately reflect the nature of the conversations between Kim and Clinton, then the visit likely gave a major boost to moderates in the Kim regime to steer its foreign policy toward dialogue and away from the provocative behavior it has displayed in recent months.

John Podesta's accompanying of Clinton signaled that broader diplomatic engagement was indeed part of the agenda. Podesta, Clinton's former chief of staff and now head of a U.S. think tank, chaired Obama's transition team early this year.

North Korea withdrew from the six-party talks on its denuclearization after the U.N. condemned its firing of a long-range rocket in April. Pyongyang conducted its second nuclear test the following month, leading the international community to impose stiff sanctions on the already isolated state through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874.

Pyongyang has made clear it will not rejoin the six-way negotiations and that it wants bilateral dialogue with Washington. The Obama administration has maintained, however, that it will only talk with the North within a multilateral framework.

When Clinton was president, the U.S. engaged in extensive negotiations with North Korea.

In 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang and negotiated a temporary resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. Months later, North Korea and the U.S. signed the Geneva Agreed Framework, which froze Pyongyang's nuclear activities until late 2002, when the accord unraveled over Pyongyang's alleged clandestine arms program.

Towards the end of Clinton's administration, the two nations exchanged high-level visits, with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and North Korean Vice Marshal Jo Myong-rok traveling to each other's capitals and discussing reconciliatory measures.

Clinton was willing to visit Pyongyang himself during his final months in office, but abandoned the plan to take part in a peace initiative in the Middle East.

hkim@yna.co.kr
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