Former President Clinton arrived in North Korea today in a dramatic bid to negotiate the release of two American TV journalists sentenced to 12 years in prison for illegally entering the secretive nation earlier this year.
Clinton, the husband of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is the highest-profile U.S. official to visit North Korea in nearly a decade. His surprise visit signals the Obama administration's readiness to engage the communist dictatorship, even as Washington presses other nations to curb ties with the country, which recently resumed its nuclear program and tested ballistic missiles in defiance of United Nations resolutions.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee of San Francisco-based Current TV were taken into custody in March near the border with China while reporting on refugees fleeing North Korea. They were sentenced to hard labor for illegal entry and "hostile acts."
Lisa Ling, the sister of reporter Laura Ling, said Monday that the family could not comment on the report.
"Everything is just so delicate," she said. "We're going to wait it out a while longer. We're on pins and needles."
White House and State Department officials declined to comment on the mission, as did a spokeswoman for former Vice President Al Gore, a co-founder of Current TV. But another U.S. official, who declined to be identified, confirmed the mission. He said the Clintons were approached by the journalists' families when it became clear the North Koreans would permit a visit.
U.S. officials and North Korea watchers have predicted for some time that Pyongyang could be open to a visit from a high-ranking dignitary to discuss the women's imprisonment.
With its love of pomp and circumstance, North Korea in the past has used celebrity visits for propaganda, trying to show that the outside world validates its system of government.
Scott Snyder of the nonprofit Asia Foundation said Clinton's standing as a world statesman carried weight with Pyongyang.
"The North Koreans have a lot of nostalgia for the end of the Clinton administration," he said.
"The question is going to be how could he go to Pyongyang without some assurance that they would be released," Snyder said.
"For someone at his level to go without a prior assurance of some kind would be to risk a huge loss of face."
The mission is especially delicate because U.S.-North Korean relations have fallen to a low point in recent months as the North has conducted a nuclear test, test-fired a series of missiles and broken off long-running disarmament talks.
U.S. officials have been debating whether to send an envoy. The mission poses the risk that the North will try to link the release to concessions on the nuclear issue, an effort the U.S. will want to resist, officials say.
Clinton's mission represents his first role for the Obama administration and another chapter in the two Clintons' long-intertwined public lives. Although Bill Clinton has not yet traveled with his wife in her official capacity as top U.S. diplomat, aides have not ruled out that the former president, who is involved in a number of international causes, would take part in some activity related to American diplomacy.
The visit comes at a time when the 67-year-old leader Kim Jong Il is reported to be gravely ill, having had a stroke last summer and, according to South Korean media reports, possibly suffering from pancreatic cancer.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank, said Clinton's visit will give the United States a rare opportunity to assess not only Kim's health, but who is actually making the decisions in North Korea.
"For me, this is a stroke of genius on the part of the Obama administration," said Cossa. "Kim Jong Il will have to meet with a former U.S. president. Given his ego and desire for attention, this is a photo opportunity he doesn't want to miss. If he doesn't meet with Clinton, we'll know he is on life support."
Neither the White House nor the State Department has said whether a meeting with the North Korean leader is planned.
An irony in the choice of Clinton is that Hillary Clinton and North Korean officials have recently engaged in a round of unusual name calling. She compared the regime to schoolchildren clamoring for attention, while the North Koreans described her as a "funny lady" and a pensioner.
But Hillary Clinton has been deeply involved in the case of the two journalists and has been trying to separate it from the larger U.S.-North Korean security dispute. At a recent town hall meeting at the State Department, Clinton sought to make progress by conveying the women's regret for what they had done and asking for amnesty.
"The two journalists and their families have expressed great remorse for this incident, and I think everyone is very sorry that it happened," she said during a question-and- answer session with State Department employees.
"What we hope for now is that these two young women would be granted amnesty through the North Korean system and be allowed to return home to their families as soon as possible."
Yet even as she has been pushing for the women's release, Clinton and the administration have been taking a very tough line on North Korea's behavior. Officials have insisted that they are not going to offer the North more incentives to return to the group disarmament talks.
Instead, they say North Korea must follow through on commitments to dismantle existing nuclear facilities and take steps toward eventual disarmament.
U.S. officials have been leading an effort to crack down on the North through tightened scrutiny of its ships and planes for arms that have been banned under a U.N. Security Council resolution. It is also trying to organize an international effort to cut the North off from the financing it has used to support its weapons trade.
Pyongyang's state media organ, the Korean Central News Agency, announced in a terse release that Bill Clinton had arrived in Pyongyang, the capital.
He and an undisclosed entourage "were greeted by Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, and Kim Kye Gwan, vice minister of foreign affairs," the release said.
A little girl presented a bouquet to Clinton, it added.
Jang Cheol-hyeon, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy and a former official at North Korea's Unification Front Department, said Clinton's visit was the best chance the U.S. has to win the reporters' release.
"He can surely bring the two journalists back home," he said.
Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean studies in Seoul, said Clinton's sudden visit suggested some behind-the-scenes negotiations had been taking place.
"It seems that this visit met some part of what North Korea has wanted," he said. "They wanted U.S. officials on the high-ranking level to come. This will have a positive effect in improving U.S.-North Korea relations."
Beyond the immediate issue of the journalists, Clinton's visit is an enormous publicity coup for Pyongyang, which has been seeking U.S. recognition for decades.
Clinton is the most important visitor since his secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2000. It was thought at the time the meeting might pave the way for regular diplomatic relations and possibly a visit by Clinton, as a sitting president, but relations fell into a deep chill after George W. Bush entered the White House.
Former President Carter met with North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, shortly before his death in 1994 and struck a handshake deal on nuclear dismantlement.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, at the time a congressman, was used as a high-profile delegate in 1996 to secure the release of a U.S. citizen who swam across the Yalu River into North Korea.
But most high-ranking visitors to Pyongyang in recent years have been Chinese officials, though those visits have recently been curtailed because of U.N. sanctions imposed after North Korea's May 25 nuclear test.
Barbara Demick of The Times' Beijing Bureau and Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.