TOPICS > Politics

Kim Jong Il Pardons Journalists During Bill Clinton Visit

August 4, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
Loading the player...
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il pardoned two jailed American journalists after a surprise meeting with former President Bill Clinton. Experts examine the implications of the meeting.

GWEN IFILL: North Korea announced today President Kim Jong-il has pardoned two American journalists who’d been held since March. He ordered their release hours after former President Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea for a surprise visit.

Jeffrey Brown has our lead story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The North Korean announcement followed a day of ceremonies and meetings beginning with Mr. Clinton’s arrival at the airport in Pyongyang.

In short order, he met with Kim, who rarely meets with foreigners, and who had an apparent stroke a year ago and remains in ill health. But state-run media reported Kim held, quote, “exhaustive talks” with Mr. Clinton.

Later, the former president met with Laura Ling and Euna Lee. The two journalists work for Current TV, a news organization founded by Mr. Clinton’s former vice president, Al Gore.

Ling and Lee were arrested in March along the China-North Korea border. They were convicted in June of hostile acts and sentenced to 12 years at hard labor.

Today, Obama administration officials stressed the private nature of Mr. Clinton’s visit. At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated that there would be no comment while Mr. Clinton was in North Korea.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: This obviously is a very sensitive topic. We will hope to provide some more detail at a later point. Our focus right now is on ensuring the safety of two journalists.

JEFFREY BROWN: The North Korean news agency said the former president did convey a verbal message from President Obama, but gave no details. White House officials said no such message was relayed.

The North Koreans also reported the discussions included a wide range of issues, and among those greeting the former president this morning was the regime’s chief nuclear negotiator.

U.S.-North Korean relations have been tense for months, as talks over the North’s nuclear program have been at a standstill and the North Koreans have conducted an underground nuclear test and test-fired a number of long- and medium-range missiles.

This evening, the North Korean news agency announced former President Clinton and his party had left the country. The report did not say if the two American women were on the flight.

U.S. officials said they had no indication yet the Clinton plane had departed.

Joining me now to discuss today’s developments, Dennis Wilder, senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff during the second Bush administration. He’s now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

And Selig Harrison, director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy, he frequently travels to North Korea.

Welcome to both of you.

SELIG HARRISON, Center for International Policy: Thank you.

DENNIS WILDER, Former Asia Director, National Security Council: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why now? Why at this time? What’s known about what brought this about?

Impetus for the visit

Selig Harrison
Center for International Policy
I think that there's been a lot of soul searching within the administration. They're very uncomfortable about this mission, all this emphasis on how private it is and so forth and so on.

DENNIS WILDER: Well, I think for some time now the Obama administration has been trying to find a way to get the journalists out. I think the North Koreans, after the new U.N. sanctions, after some experience with the isolation they felt since their nuclear test, wanted some sort of way to show that they were able to break out of the isolation.

So I think they indicated that they would be very interested in a visit by someone like President Clinton. They made an overture, and the administration decided for the sake of the journalists to take them up on that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Harrison, I mean, it's very famously hard to know what the thinking is in North Korea.

SELIG HARRISON: Well, in this case, the important thing is that was not the administration's baby. The administration did not create this mission; Bill Clinton did.

Bill Clinton went to Seoul, South Korea, in May. He met former President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea, whom he had long admired and worked with as president. Kim Dae-jung said, You're the guy to go to North Korea and not only release the two -- get the release of the two imprisoned journalists, but open up a dialogue with North Korea, set the stage for negotiations.

So Bill Clinton went back from -- this became known in South Korea. The North Koreans knew that Kim Dae-jung had made this proposal. Kim Dae-jung goes back to Washington and makes it known to Hillary and to others that he wants to go.

And this is what led to the whole thing, that you've had a debate, really, in the administration since late May over whether it's appropriate for the husband of the secretary of state to go to a mission like this and also a nervousness, because it's quite clear that Bill Clinton has a very proprietary feeling about the relationship with North Korea.

JEFFREY BROWN: Based on his past?

SELIG HARRISON: When he was president -- well, when he was president, we froze the nuclear program from 1994 to 2002. This was one of his big successes.

So I think that there's been a lot of soul searching within the administration. They're very uncomfortable about this mission, all this emphasis on how private it is and so forth and so on.

So now you're going to have a big discussion within the administration over what he's found out, because he's going to be talking about the conversations he had with Kim Jong-il, which went far beyond the fate of the two young women.

U.S. concessions?

Dennis Wilder
National Security Council
I think it could well have been precooked. But, again, I think that what the North got was a visit by President Clinton.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. But before we get to the "what next," is there any understanding about -- I mean, there is this dispute, I guess, about whether he carried a message from President Obama. There's the North Korean state agency saying he apologized, but that's not clear. Is there any way of knowing whether the U.S. gave up anything, even if that's just an apology at this point?

DENNIS WILDER: I very much doubt that the Obama White House gave any kind of real apology or any statement for him to take. I think the White House is, as Mr. Harrison said, a little wary of all of this. They feel that this is a fine amnesty for the two journalists, but they don't want it to look like amnesty for North Korea.

After all, North Korea walked away from the six-party negotiations. It conducted another missile test this year; it conducted a nuclear test this year.

The administration says it's fine to give an amnesty to these two. We're happy to see them coming home, hopefully. But we're not going to move forward in negotiations with North Korea until we see a lot more from North Korea of serious goodwill and good intent.

JEFFREY BROWN: And would you agree that Bill Clinton -- this, in some ways, looks a little precooked, as Mr. Harrison was saying, based on his past trips there?

DENNIS WILDER: I think it could well have been precooked. But, again, I think that what the North got was a visit by President Clinton.

Now, that's a big gift to the North in many ways, because, as Mr. Harrison said, President Clinton was the high point of U.S.-North Korean relations. And certainly, at the end of his administration, there was talk he was even close to going to North Korea.

But the administration has gotten sanctions on the North, had gotten the Chinese, the Russians, everybody lined up to put a bit of pressure on the North to come back in a serious way to what is called complete and irreversible nuclear talks.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. So you -- go ahead.

SELIG HARRISON: Well, I don't think you're going to have -- you know, to get North Korea to the point where it's ready to really denuclearize, you're first going to have to normalize relations. And they've changed their position in that respect.

Before, the idea was, you would denuclearize, denuclearize, and then you would normalize relations. Now they've got different terms for denuclearization.

So Bill Clinton had very significant discussions while he was there with Kim Jong-il in the presence of his principal -- the principal adviser to Kim Jong-il, who's been working for better relations with the U.S., First Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju.

It was very significant that Kim Jong-il brought him out of the woodwork. He's been not heard from for a long time, and it's given the impression that the hard-liners were in complete control of North Korea.

Kim Jong-il brought Kang Sok Ju into the discussions. I think that a lot of substantive issues must have been explored. They had a dinner afterwards in which there were conversations. All this is going to feed into the policy discussions in Washington. And I think we're going to be in for a lot of internal differences over this issue in Washington.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because, as you say, there had been a debate within the administration, right, about whether to treat this as just about the release of the two women or to try to use it to expand back to the question of relations.

SELIG HARRISON: And since it was Bill Clinton's baby, he was determined to make this a broader issue, broader thing. Of course. I don't think he will go -- I'd be surprised if he went into the public domain with a lot of his own ideas about this before the administration has had a chance to work on all this.

There's a great irony in all this. Bill Clinton didn't want Jimmy Carter to go to North Korea...

JEFFREY BROWN: When Bill Clinton was president, right.

SELIG HARRISON: ... when he was the president in 1994. And now we have a situation in which Bill Clinton has put the Obama administration in a position where, with his wife as secretary of state, he was able to pull this off.

Next steps

Selig Harrison
Center for International Policy
The North Koreans have a very clear offer on the table. They've had it on the table since January when I went there.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what might happen? What's likely to happen next? What should happen next?

DENNIS WILDER: Well, I think that Bill Clinton will report back to his wife and certainly to the White House. I agree with Mr. Harrison. I think there is going to be a lively debate on this.

After all, the administration doesn't want to give up its North Korea policy to Bill Clinton to run for it. It wants to control the situation. It wants to understand exactly what the North is willing to put on the table.

Is the North willing to come back to the six-party talks? Is the North willing to close down Yongbyon again unilaterally, bring the IAEA inspectors back in, bring the Americans back in who were monitoring things in North Korea? There are a lot of issues here that have not been explained on the North Korean side.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what about on the American side? Is that debate still ongoing about the degree of relationship of openness, of our approach to them?

DENNIS WILDER: Absolutely. There will be some people who will want to open the lines first and ask for things from the North Koreans later. There will be other people who will say, "We need something upfront from the North Koreans"...

SELIG HARRISON: The North Koreans have a very clear offer on the table. They've had it on the table since January when I went there. They want to go back to negotiations and work out a new set of exchanges on the basis of which they will cap their nuclear arsenal at present levels.

The complete denuclearization will be later down the pike, after we have normalized relations with them, but they are ready for tradeoffs that would stop any further expansion of their nuclear program, which seems to me to be a very valuable achievement for the United States to work for.

JEFFREY BROWN: But not to everyone?

SELIG HARRISON: Certainly not, no.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because this has been the debate.

SELIG HARRISON: That's right.

DENNIS WILDER: I would really be surprised if the administration is willing to accept a cap on North Korean nuclear weapons capability, because that means accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.

I think the United States knows that that's a dangerous position to put itself in. You have Iran wanting to do the same. I don't think the Obama administration is going to take that kind of offer...

SELIG HARRISON: Well, first, you know, you don't have to do it in such a way that you're committed to a permanent level of five nuclear weapons. It's a step in a process that would be resumed, much like the process that was broken off at the end of last year.

By the way, we didn't -- most people think North Korea doesn't live up to its commitments in negotiations. The fact is that, at the end of these negotiations last year, Japan had promised 200,000 tons of oil to North Korea that it never delivered, and the North Koreans want that 200,000 tons of oil to be arranged by the United States and the other powers now, and I'm sure that somewhere in those discussions in Pyongyang that came up.

Kim Jong-il's Health

Dennis Wilder
National Security Council
I think probably the whole Clinton delegation was watching very closely to see how he moved, whether he had a limp, whether there were after-effects of the stroke, how strong he looked.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me just ask you very briefly. At the very least, we learn here a little bit more about Kim Jong-il himself.

DENNIS WILDER: And his health, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And his health.

DENNIS WILDER: Absolutely. And I think probably the whole Clinton delegation was watching very closely to see how he moved, whether he had a limp, whether there were after-effects of the stroke, how strong he looked. So I think this will be a very interesting trip from that point of view.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. We'll be watching going forward. Dennis Wilder and Selig Harrison, thank you both very much.



GWEN IFILL: For a look back on how previous presidents have turned diplomat, you can visit our Web site at There, you'll find an interview with Richard Norton Smith and a slide show of the trips taken by other former presidents.