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August 5, 2009

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Bill Clinton meets Kim on journalists

FORMER US President Bill Clinton met yesterday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on the first day of a surprise mission to Pyongyang to negotiate the release of two American journalists.

Clinton "courteously" conveyed a message from US President Barack Obama, the official Korean Central News Agency said in a report from Pyongyang. Kim expressed his thanks and engaged Clinton in a "wide-ranging exchange of views on matters of common concern," the report said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, however, denied Clinton went with a message from Obama. "That's not true," he told reporters.

Clinton was in North Korea on a mission to secure the freedom of Americans Euna Lee and Laura Ling, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture who were arrested along the Chinese-North Korean border in March and sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry and engaging in "hostile acts."

Clinton's landmark visit, which was not announced in advance by North Korea or the US, comes at a time of heightened tension between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea's nuclear program.

North Korea in recent months has conducted a nuclear test and test fired an array of ballistic missiles in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, with Washington leading the push to punish Pyongyang for its defiance.

It was only the second visit to Pyongyang by a former US leader. Jimmy Carter traveled there for talks with Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 in a ground-breaking meeting during a time of similar tensions.

Clinton's meeting with Kim would be North Korean leader's first with a prominent Western figure since Kim reportedly suffered a stroke a year ago.

The North Korean leader, said to have a taste for fine wines and gourmet food, also is believed to suffer from chronic diabetes and heart disease. The man who once sported a noticeable pot belly has appeared gaunt in recent months.

Though Clinton was in North Korea on a private basis, his trip was treated by North Korea as a high-profile visit, with senior officials - including Kim Kye Gwan, the vice foreign minister who serves as the country's chief nuclear negotiator - meeting him on the tarmac.

Footage from the APTN television news agency showed the arriving Clinton exchanging warm handshakes with North Korean officials and accepting a bouquet of flowers from a schoolgirl.

Kim later hosted a banquet for Clinton at the state guesthouse, North Korean media reported.

Photos in state-run media of the visit showed Kim, with a broad smile, standing next to a solemn-looking Clinton. The two also posed with Clinton's party in front of a mural, and another picture showed the men and others seated around a conference table.

Though Clinton does not hold office, his stature and good relations with Pyongyang could yield positive results, analysts said.

"This is a very potentially rewarding trip. Not only is it likely to resolve the case of the two American journalists detained in North Korea for many months, but it could also be a very significant opening and breaking this downward cycle of tension and recrimination between the US and North Korea," Mike Chinoy, author of "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis," said in Beijing.

There was no word in state media on the status of Clinton's negotiations to secure the release of Ling, 32, and Lee, 36.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month urged North Korea to grant the women amnesty, saying they were remorseful and that their families were anguished.


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