NKorean news agency says Bill Clinton arrives in Pyongyang for talks to free US journalists

By Jae-soon Chang, AP
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

NKorean media says Clinton arrives in Pyongyang

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s state news agency says former U.S. President Bill Clinton has arrived in Pyongyang, following reports that he’s headed there to win the release of two detained American journalists.

The official Korean Central News Agency says Tuesday that Clinton was greeted at the airport by North Korean officials, including the country’s chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan.

KCNA says, “A little girl presented a bouquet to Bill Clinton.”

The reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally and engaging in “hostile acts.”

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is headed to North Korea to negotiate the freedom of two detained American journalists, news reports said Tuesday, nearly five months after they were seized on the China border.

Clinton is on his way to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, where he will try to win the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said, citing an unidentified high-level source.

The reporters for former Vice President Al Gore’s California-based Current TV media venture were arrested in March while on a reporting trip to the Chinese-North Korean border. They were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally and engaging in “hostile acts.”

Washington has pushed for amnesty for the two women and is believed to working behind the scenes to negotiate their release.

There was no immediate comment from Clinton’s New York foundation. Gore’s spokeswoman, Kalee Kreider, said she could not comment on the reports. At the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Tommy Vietor said he had no comment.

Clinton would be the second former U.S. president to visit North Korea; Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang in 1994, when Clinton was in office, and met with then-North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, late father of current leader Kim Jong Il.

That visit came amid spiraling nuclear tensions — and led to a breakthrough accord between the two sides months later.

This trip also would occur amid heightened tensions in the wake of North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in defiance of U.N. resolutions. Analysts have said the communist regime is expected to use the detained reporters as a negotiating card to win concessions from Washington.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said Clinton’s visit could serve two purposes: securing the women’s release and improving ties between Washington and Pyongyang, which do not have diplomatic relations.

“I think it’s not just about journalists. It will serve as a turning point in the U.S.-North Korea relations,” he said.

Pyongyang has expressed strong interest in one-on-one negotiations with Washington, while claiming it won’t return to six-nation nuclear negotiations involving China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States.

The United States says it can talk bilaterally with the North, but only on the sidelines of new six-nation talks.

North Korea has rapidly escalated tensions this year. It conducted a long-range rocket launch, quit the six-nation talks on ending its nuclear program, restarted its nuclear facilities, carried out its second nuclear test and test-fired a series of ballistic missiles.

As a way to pressure North Korea to return to the negotiating table, Washington has been seeking international support for strict enforcement of a U.N. sanctions resolution adopted to punish the North for its May 25 nuclear test.

Associated Press Writer Jay Arnold in Washington contributed to this report.

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