Bill Clinton in Pyongyang

Aug 4, 2009
Jack Bremer

Former president seeks release of two US journalists held in North Korea

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, unable to secure the release of two American journalists sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean prison camp for "grave crimes" against the communist state, has called in the cavalry - in the shape of her husband Bill Clinton.

The former president arrived in the capital Pyongyang this morning hoping to negotiate the release of Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, who were arrested in March this year on the border with China.

After "exhaustive" talks between Clinton and the country's 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il, and a dinner in Clinton's honour hosted by Kim, the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that the former president might even fly out of Pyongyang on Wednesday with Ling and Lee.

The two women were working for Current TV, the cable network co-founded by Al Gore, Clinton's former VP when they were arrested. The North Koreans claimed they entered the country illegally and were engaged in "hostile acts". When they finally went on trial in June, they were both sentenced to 12 years' hard labour. In North Korea's remote prison camps, reminiscent of the Soviet gulags, this can mean back-breaking work in coalmines and paddy fields.

In the absence of diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang, Secretary of State Clinton has said "everyone is very sorry" about the incident and urged Pyongyang to free the two journalists on humanitarian grounds. But to no avail.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at South Korea's Dongguk University, told the Associated Press that Clinton's visit could serve two purposes: securing the women's release and improving ties between the two countries. "I think it's not just about journalists," he said.

Ever since their arrest, it has been assumed by North Korea watchers that the two women would be used as bargaining chips in the increasingly tense standoff between the two countries over Kim Jong-il's nuclear ambitions. It has also been speculated that it would take a visit to Pyongyang by a 'bigshot' like Clinton or Gore to get things moving.

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