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Journalists’ Return Sparks Debate on N. Korea Relations

August 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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After being held in North Korea for four months, two journalists for Current TV returned to the U.S. accompanied by former President Bill Clinton. Margaret Warner reports on the homecoming, and what the episode means for U.S. relations with North Korea.

GWEN IFILL: Today was homecoming day for two American journalists who spent five months behind bars in North Korea. They’d been sentenced to 12 years at hard labor after being captured along the border, but they were freed yesterday after former President Clinton flew to North Korea to meet with Kim Jong-il.

Margaret Warner has our lead story.

MARGARET WARNER: The rescued and their rescuer landed early this morning at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California, near Los Angeles.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were quickly overcome with emotion, Ling raising her arms in joy and Lee gathering up her young daughter, Hanna.

They were met plane-side by their families, colleagues, and a throng of reporters and cameras.

Hours earlier, former President Clinton greeted the women at the airport in Pyongyang after North Korean leader Kim Jong-il ordered their release. It marked a successful end to Mr. Clinton’s surprise 20-hour whirlwind stop in the North Korean capital, which included a meeting and dinner with Kim.

Back on American soil today, Ling spoke of their ordeal and its resolution.

LISA LING, journalist: Thirty hours ago, Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea. We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard labor camp.

And then, suddenly, we were told that we were going to a meeting. We were taken to a location, and when we walked in through the doors we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton. We were shocked, but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Clinton did not speak at the emotional reunion this morning, but his former vice president, Al Gore, did. Gore is a co-founder of Current TV, which employs the two reporters.

AL GORE, former vice president of the United States: It speaks well of our country that when two American citizens are in harm’s way, that so many people would just put things aside and just go to work to make sure that this has had a happy ending.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama and his administration had avoided substantive comment on Mr. Clinton’s trip while he was in North Korea.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Good morning, everybody.

MARGARET WARNER: But today in Washington, the president welcomed the results.

BARACK OBAMA: I think that not only is this White House obviously extraordinarily happy, but all Americans should be grateful to both former President Clinton and Vice President Gore for their extraordinary work. Thank you very much.

JOURNALIST: How does this affect nuclear talks, Mr. President?

MARGARET WARNER: The president did not answer a shouted question about American policy toward North Korea, especially on the stubborn issue of its nuclear weapons program.

But Mr. Obama’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, emphasized her husband’s trip was solely a rescue mission.

HILLARY CLINTON, Secretary of State: We have been working hard on the release of the two journalists. We’ve always considered that a totally separate issue from our efforts to re-engage the North Koreans and have them return to the six-party talks and work toward a commitment for the full, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

MARGARET WARNER: White House officials insisted again today that Mr. Clinton carried no message or apology from President Obama to Kim Jong-il. They said the former president will brief the Obama national security team shortly on what happened during his time in Pyongyang.

Path to freedom

Margaret Warner
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
Less than two weeks ago, the two women in talks with their families said, well, the North Koreans have told us if you'd send Bill Clinton they would grant us amnesty.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret's been digging deep into how this drama unfolded, and she joins us now.

When did these negotiations to free these two journalists begin?

MARGARET WARNER: I'm told, Gwen, that from the time the two women were seized in March. The U.S. -- the special envoy idea was certainly in the air. We all talked about it.

And the U.S., through certain channels, like the Swedish ambassador in North Korea, and also the fact North Korea has a permanent representative at the U.N. -- that's called the New York channel -- that the U.S. actually floated some names such as Al Gore, such as Bill Richardson, and former President Clinton.

But, in the meantime, there was no answer. The two women were sentenced to hard labor. Then they were heartened to hear, well, at least they hadn't been sent to the camp.

But less than two weeks ago, the two women in talks with their families said, well, the North Koreans have told us if you'd send Bill Clinton they would grant us amnesty.

So they -- the NSC, General Jones approached Bill Clinton on this, and he wanted to make sure that this would be for real. They worked the channels again, tried to make absolutely sure this wasn't a trap, that they were going to get Bill Clinton there and then humiliate him. And once they determined that, then the way was clear.

They went to great pains, however, to maintain the independence. The U.S. did not furnish the plane. A wealthy donor, a big Hollywood producer named Stephen Bing furnished the plane.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that's what I was going to ask you. Why is it that we didn't hear from President Obama on this or really anybody in the administration formally until after the deal was done, there was an arm's-length thing here?

MARGARET WARNER: Because of what Secretary Clinton just said, they wanted to be absolutely sure that the world knew, that the North Koreans knew, that our partners in the six-party talks knew that this was no way undercutting the very tough stand the U.S. has taken.

After all, it's been a spring and summer of provocative actions by the North Koreans on the nuclear front, a nuclear device tested, a missile tested. The U.N. has declared tougher sanctions on them, so they wanted to keep that track separate.

And so though the State Department and the NSC briefed President Clinton at the home that he shares with Secretary Clinton here in Washington just last Saturday, President Obama and he didn't speak until today.

GWEN IFILL: OK, now, you just raised the big question here. We have secretary -- unprecedented -- Secretary of State Clinton and former President Clinton. Did she have any qualms that we know about, about this idea of her husband's incredible involvement in this?

MARGARET WARNER: I'm told by people close to her they do not believe she did. She had been talking to them all along about how eager she was to get these two young women out and how she, if not identified with them, that she took this as a personal kind of mission.

And that though she's worked hard to keep her role separate from her husband and make clear she's the person in the government, once it became clear from the North Koreans that he was the key to making the deal, as one friend said to me, "That's very typical Hillary. She wouldn't let the psychobabble stuff get in the way."

Implications for nuclear talks

Margaret Warner
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
What that means for policy, they have no idea. And what they want to do is really debrief former President Clinton. They consider him a very astute observer. One, he knows the subject. He knows the North Koreans. He knows the nuclear issue.

GWEN IFILL: So we saw these pictures of Kim Jong-il with the president, very animated, appeared to be very engaged, which is a contrast of what we've seen of him in recent months. In fact, it had become conventional wisdom that he was kind of weakened and on his way out. Does this restore him to some position of power?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the administration officials are reading the video just as we are, and they don't know. Clearly, they could see, it was choreographed to present him as, "I'm back. I'm a world leader. I'm on the world stage."

What that means for policy, they have no idea. And what they want to do is really debrief former President Clinton. They consider him a very astute observer. One, he knows the subject. He knows the North Koreans. He knows the nuclear issue. And they think he's a very...

GWEN IFILL: That hasn't happened yet, this debriefing?

MARGARET WARNER: No, it has not. They only had very short brief conversations, President Obama and he, and either he or John Podesta, who was with him, his former chief of staff, with NSC officials. But they want a completely secure environment, so it's either going to be on a secure phone call when he gets back to New York or he'll come down here.

GWEN IFILL: So they're certain at this point that after very carefully orchestrating this, they have not given North Korea an edge in larger discussions about nuclear weaponry or other things?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, they were confident of that. I mean, they -- and what I'm told is that, interestingly, the North Koreans, in the sort of due diligence phase, when they were figuring out is this for real, were not insisting at all that there be some link.

So, of course, they turned around and told their people that President Obama had sent a message, which the Americans insist is not the case, but, no, I don't think they're worried about that. And they'd also taken pains to make sure that the other partners in the six-party talks -- Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan -- knew of this in advance, understood this was not undercutting the whole nuclear united front they're trying to present in any way.

GWEN IFILL: So this is not necessarily an opening for everyone to return to the table because now we have found this -- we've had this great breakthrough?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that's the question. Does it mean that on the North Koreans' part -- after all, they're the ones who walked away from the talks and took all these provocative steps -- does this mean they're ready to come back?

The U.S. certainly, I mean, hopes it does, but they have absolutely no idea. And in the meantime, they're working with, again, the partners in the talks to what I'm told is come up with a different and tougher approach when and if talks resume, which is they've sort of concluded that this step-by-step confidence-building-measures things isn't working because the North Koreans can reverse it like that.

So if and when the talks resume, then we'll see what relative strength each side feels it has.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret, thank you for all your reporting.