Freed U.S. Journalists Arrive Home

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KRT / Reuters

In an image taken from video footage, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il pose for a picture in Pyongyang on Aug. 4, 2009

UPDATED: Aug. 5, 2009, 9:00 A.M.

In the 4½ months that American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling have been held captive in North Korea, there has been one constant amid 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 dismal state of relations between the two countries. For a while, speculation centered on former Vice President Al Gore, who in 2004 co-founded Current TV, the network the two journalists work for. 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 Secretary of State's husband, who just happens to be a former President.

Now Bill Clinton's lighting visit to Pyongyang — he landed Tuesday morning, Aug. 4, in the North Korean capital after flying in overnight from Anchorage — has done the trick. Shortly after he was photographed with North Korea's dynastic leader Kim Jong Il, wire services reported that Pyongyang had pardoned Lee and Ling, a necessary step in their release. And just before 7:30 p.m. eastern time, Clinton's spokesman sent out this statement: "President Clinton has safely left North Korea with Laura Ling and Euna Lee. They are en route to Los Angeles where Laura and Euna will be reunited with their families." The Korean Central News Agency called the release of the two journalists a sign of North Korea's "humanitarian and peace-loving policy." And at 5.50 a.m. pacific time (8.50 a.m. ET) Wednesday, their plane touched down at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank outside Los Angeles.

The misson was the former President's first high-profile assignment for the Obama Administration, and few observers 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 a Western diplomat on Tuesday. "There had to have been assurances that this was the endgame" for the two women prisoners, who were arrested on 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.

The success of Clinton's mission does more than 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 that set the precedent for Clinton's current trip: at a moment when it seemed as if a deal might be falling apart, Clinton dispatched former President Jimmy Carter to meet with Kim Il Sung, father of Kim Jong Il.

That deal later foundered as each side accused the other of not living up to its details. (Both sides had a case.) 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 2000, late in his second term, Clinton sent his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, to meet with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, where they famously clinked champagne glasses. 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 achievable.

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