In the four-and-a-half months that two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, have been held captive in North Korea, there has been one constant amidst the rumors swirling around the case: the North Koreans wanted a high-powered emissary to come from the U.S. to try to win the release of the prisoners and, no doubt, listen to whatever else it was that Pyongyang had to say about the current, dismal state of relations between the two countries. For awhile, speculation centered on former vice president Al Gore, who co founded Current TV, the network the two journalists work for, in 2004. But Gore’s direct stake in the case put him in a complicated spot. Plus, there was another, arguably better option for a special envoy: the current U.S. Secretary of State’s husband, who just happens to be a former President.
Bill Clinton’s arrival in Pyongyang he landed Tuesday morning in the North Korean capital after flying in overnight from Anchorage, Alaska is his first high profile assignment for the Obama administration. Though by Tuesday evening Korea time, the two journalists had not yet been released, few expected that such a high ranking envoy would leave without securing their freedom. “A former President is not going to show up in Pyongyang only to get stiffed,” said one western diplomat on Tuesday. “There had to have been assurances that this was the end game” for the two women prisoners, who were arrested March 17 along the border in northeast China while filming a report about North Korean refugees. They were subsequently convicted of illegal entry and unspecified “hostile acts” against North Korea and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. Clinton’s private hopes of success, however, did not stop the White House from releasing a stern public statement to the press: “While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment. We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton’s mission.”
But Clinton’s presence does more than potentially resolve one difficult problem among many between the U.S. and North Korea. It also reminds his hosts that there used to be better days between the two countries. In 1994, during Clinton’s first term in office, the two sides entered into the “Agreed Framework,” the first time Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program in return for a range of economic benefits, including the construction of two light water nuclear reactors to generate electricity for the impoverished country. In fact, it was pursuit of that agreement which set the precedent for Clinton’s current trip: At a moment when it seemed like a deal might be falling apart, Clinton dispatched former President Jimmy Carter to meet with Kim Il Sung, father of the current North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
That deal later foundered, as both sides accused the other of not living up to its details. But Clinton, as president, didn’t waver from his belief that a grand bargain with the North was possible not just denuclearization, but an eventual peace treaty and normalization of relations between Washington and Pyongyang. In October of 2000, late into his second term, Clinton sent his Secretary of State Madeline Albright to meet with Kim Jong Il, where they famously clinked champagne glasses in Pyongyang. The former President even flirted with the idea of going to North Korea himself right up until the end of his presidency; in the end, he didn’t, because an overarching agreement never quite appeared acheivable.
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