Talks for secret mission to North Korea began once journalists were seized, sources say

The negotiations that led to former President Clinton's secret mission to North Korea began almost as soon as two U.S. journalists were seized by the isolated Stalinist state, and were spurred on by the Obama administration's hope that they might lead to a resumption of disarmament talks, according to people close to the process.

The narrow goal was a specific deal: If the United States showed respect to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il by dispatching an emissary of significant stature to Pyongyang, the regime would release journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested along the border with China on March 17. The choice of Clinton, one of many high-profile public figures who volunteered for the assignment, met that test.

But many in the administration argued that providing North Korea with a face-saving resolution on the fate of the journalists could open the way to a broader diplomatic goal: the resumption of talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, which have been gridlocked.

Worried that the North Koreans would use Clinton's trip to win concessions on nuclear issues, the administration was careful to publicly characterize the mission as a private initiative with simple humanitarian aims. Clinton arrived in the North Korean capital in a private jet.

But behind the scenes, White House officials kept tight control of negotiations, said people close to the process.

"This has been an orchestrated diplomatic process, carefully calibrated in both capitals," said a person who has been close to the exchanges since they began. He asked for anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.

The ostensible aim of the mission was a success. The North Koreans issued a "special pardon" to Ling and Lee, and the pair left Pyongyang aboard Clinton's plane to return to Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, a senior official outlined the administration's nearly five-month effort to free the women, which involved a number of contacts with North Korean officials and almost daily contacts with the families of the journalists.

The U.S. regularly entreated the North Koreans, through Swedish intermediaries in Pyongyang, to free the women and to improve their treatment while they were imprisoned, the official said.

In mid-July, the pace of events quickened, after North Korea told the women that they would be released if Clinton came to request that they be granted amnesty for their crimes. Within days of learning of this demand, the family members and former Vice President Al Gore -- co-founder of Current TV, Ling's and Lee's employer -- approached Clinton about the mission.

The former president was eager for the role. He had first been urged to take on such a mission in May, when he met in Seoul with Kim Dae-jung, the former South Korean president who had worked with Clinton while both were in office to carry out a policy of reconciliation with the North.

As president, Clinton presided over a thaw in relations between the U.S. and North Korea in the 1990s.

"He was a perfect choice, and a safe choice," said Charles L. Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea. "He'd handled tough North Korea issues before, and he wasn't going to go off and do something that the secretary of State wouldn't like" -- alluding to the former president's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the top U.S. diplomat.

Before sending former President Clinton, however, the Obama administration spent a period testing North Korea's sincerity, wanting to avoid a scenario in which Clinton might return empty-handed. "We did quite a bit of due diligence," a senior administration official said Tuesday.

North Korea sent a positive message back July 27, when its state-run news agency said the government might be open to a resumption of dialogue.

"That was a clear, authoritative signal," said a person close to the talks.

Obama administration officials gave the arrangement their blessing, but only after demanding an explicit acknowledgment from Pyongyang that the mission was humanitarian, and had nothing to do with the nuclear dispute between the two countries.

The senior official said that Clinton met with Kim Jong Il for more than three hours and 15 minutes, including a dinner that ran more than two hours. The official said he didn't know what the two discussed, but added, "I'm sure President Clinton gave . . . Kim his views on denuclearization."

Contrary to North Korean claims, the official denied that Clinton had offered Kim an apology. He said the administration doesn't intend to ease up on the North Koreans now that they have released the journalists, but will continue trying to enforce United Nations sanctions imposed this spring after North Korean nuclear and missile tests.

In contrast to the U.S. portrayal of the trip as a private mission, the North Koreans gave it the imprimatur of a state visit, issuing a formal photograph of Kim and Clinton seated side by side to mark the occasion.

Some Obama administration officials are skeptical that North Korean officials, who have repeatedly denounced the six-country disarmament talks, will return to the negotiating table as a result of Clinton's visit.

But others say the trip may break the impasse that has been in place since North Korea walked away from the nuclear talks in 2008. North Korea has long demanded one-on-one talks with the U.S.

American officials say a new opening could start, for example, with bilateral talks between U.S. and North Korean officials, possibly followed later by international negotiations, in a new format if the multilateral forum is altered.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denied that President Obama had sent a message with Clinton to be passed on to Kim. But North Korean state news media reported that "Clinton courteously conveyed a verbal message of U.S. President Barack Obama expressing profound thanks for this and reflecting views on ways of improving the relations between the two countries."

And several people close to the talks said the former president certainly would have communicated the administration's views. They said they expected him to have told the North Koreans what the administration has been saying publicly: that they should return to negotiations, and would be rewarded if they took additional steps toward giving up their small nuclear arsenal.

Though North Korea's leadership is believed to be embroiled in an internal dispute over who will succeed Kim, the people close to the process said it was clear that in these communications, Kim, known as the "Dear Leader," was still making the key decisions.

A 1994 visit to Pyongyang by former President Carter led to a period of cooperation between North Korea and the U.S. But Korea specialists said the success of that mission shouldn't lead to unrealistic hopes about the chances for a real improvement in U.S.-North Korean relations, which have been in a downward spiral all year.

L. Gordon Flake, a North Korea specialist at the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, said hopes and uncertainties that existed in 1994 have been largely extinguished by the regime's behavior since.

The environment now "is much more difficult, much more constrained," Flake said. "There are far fewer options."

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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