Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was on his way to North Korea to win the release of two detained American journalists, diplomatic sources in Seoul said today.
His trip to the isolated communist state, if confirmed, is expected to help pave the way for direct talks between Pyongyang and Washington and the resumption of six-way disarmament negotiations that also involve South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan.
"Former President Clinton is en route to Pyongyang," an informed source said. "As soon as he arrives there, he will begin negotiations for the release of the journalists."
Clinton, whose administration had engaged in extensive negotiations with Pyongyang, is expected to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, according to the source.
Go get our girls!
The source added Clinton would fly into the North later Tuesday without providing other details such as the exact time of his arrival or how long he will stay there.
Both the U.S. and South Korean governments kept mum on the reported trip by Clinton, husband of current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Andy Lainey, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, would not confirm the report, saying, "I have no information on that. It won’t be available until morning."
A White House National Security Council officer, who would not give his name, also said, "I have no information on the travel."
Laura Ling and Euna Lee of the San Francisco-based media group Current TV, co-founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, were arrested in mid-March near the China-North Korea border while reporting on refugees fleeing the impoverished North. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor by the North on charges of illegal entry and "hostile acts."
North Korea and the U.S. have been holding "active consultations" on their fate in recent weeks, according to a source in Seoul.
The U.S. reportedly planned to send Gore as a special envoy but the North rejected the offer, apparently in hopes that Washington would send a top-level government official authorized to discuss pending political issues.
The Obama administration, however, has maintained that it will not link the journalists’ detention with the current nuclear issue. Clinton is apparently a compromise choice, saving face for both sides.
Another source said that Clinton is accompanied by civilians from his foundation, not U.S. government officials.
Shortly after his retirement in 2001, the former president established the "William J. Clinton Foundation," with the stated mission of strengthening people’s capacity to meet the challenges of global interdependence.
Clinton’s reported visit to the North raises hopes for an immediate breakthrough in the stalemate over efforts to denuclearize Pyongyang.
The North withdrew from the six-party talks after firing a long-range rocket in April and conducting a second nuclear test the following month. In response to those provocations, the international community imposed strong sanctions on North Korea through U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874.
In 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter made a surprise visit to Pyongyang to negotiate a temporary end to the first North Korean nuclear crisis.