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Clinton's North Korea Visit Could Revive Six-Party Talks

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (right) welcomed former U.S. President Bill Clinton in Pyongyang. Will the visit break the ice and bring North Korea back to talks on its nuclear program?
(RFE/RL) -- It's mission accomplished for former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who flew back to the United States with two American women journalists freed by North Korea.

Clinton won the freedom of the two journalists in talks with North Korea's reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, in Pyongyang.

The journalists were arrested in March for illegally entering North Korea from China, and for committing unspecified hostile acts.

But what did Kim receive in return for his gesture of pardoning the women from 12 years of hard labor?

The short answer to the question is the presence of Bill Clinton himself. The former U.S. president is still a hugely popular figure in the world, and to have him travelling to Pyongyang to ask a favor of Kim is a major boost in prestige for the isolated communist state.

Although the trip had the appearance of a spontaneous rescue mission, U.S. officials say it was carefully choreographed over several months beforehand.

Douglas Ling, the father of one of the two journalists, alluded to this behind-the-scenes effort when he thanked the U.S. authorities.

"I'm so thankful to all the people for their prayers and thoughts. I'm very thankful to the State Department, I'm very thankful to the government for doing all they [could] to gain the release," Ling said.

Breaking The Ice

Explaining the sequence of events, U.S. officials say the North let it be known that it would be willing to give back the women if a prominent American came personally to take them home.

Their choice for the task was Bill Clinton.

Clinton, an old adversary of Kim Jong Il, said he would only go if there was a reasonable chance the journalists would be freed. He received assurances, while the United States likewise received assurances that the North would not raise other issues like the dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear program.

But in fact the visit is closely, if indirectly, bound up with the nuclear dispute.

Writing in "The Washington Post" on August 5, Glenn Kessler said U.S. officials are hoping Clinton's visit would give Kim a face-saving way of ending the North's series of provocative actions, such as the recent nuclear test and the test-firing of missiles, and begin the process of returning to the negotiating table on its nuclear program.

Clinton spent several hours cloistered in talks with Kim, plus a two-hour banquet. The administration of President Barack Obama said no incentives were offered to North Korea on the nuclear standoff. But a senior administration official said Clinton did talk about the "positive things that could flow" from freeing the two journalists.

For its part, Japan quickly realized the broader implications of the Clinton visit. Chief government spokesman Takeo Kawamura expressed the hope that Clinton's visit would "prompt the resumption of talks between the United States and North Korea, as well as the six-party talks" on the North's nuclear program, which also include Japan, Russia, China, and South Korea.

"We also hope that through further talks, we would be able to resolve other pending issues, including the kidnapping cases of Japanese citizens, and normalize diplomatic relations with North Korea," Kawamura added.

The six-party talks were abandoned by the North as five years of effort were swept away in the aftermath of the North's second nuclear test.

with agency material