, SEOUL, Aug 4 – Former US president Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea Tuesday on a surprise trip apparently aimed at negotiating the release of two American journalists sentenced to 12 years of hard labour.
Clinton is the highest-profile American to visit the communist state since his own secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 2000, and analysts said his dramatic foray could also benefit US efforts to disarm the nuclear-armed North.
"As soon as he arrives, he will be entering negotiations with the North for the release of the female journalists," South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted a source as saying. US officials declined comment.
Analysts in Seoul said the ex-president is expected to meet leader Kim Jong-Il, and to return home with the women detained in March along the border with China.
They said the trip could also improve icy relations between the North and the United States and its allies, following Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests this spring and subsequent tougher United Nations sanctions.
Clinton and his party were greeted at Pyongyang’s Sunan airport by Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of parliament, and by vice foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-Gwan, TV footage showed.
A dark-suited Clinton shook hands with a young girl who presented him with a bouquet on the tarmac.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested on March 17 while reporting on refugees fleeing the impoverished North.
A Pyongyang court in June sentenced them to 12 years of "reform through labour" for illegal entry and an unspecified "grave crime".
Official media said Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, had admitted to a politically motivated smear campaign. The pair work for California-based Current TV, co-founded by Clinton’s vice president Al Gore.
The official media said they crossed the border illegally "for the purpose of making animation files to be used for an anti-DPRK (North Korea) smear campaign over its human rights issue".
Their families and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the former president’s wife, have appealed for their release on humanitarian grounds.
Laura Ling, in a July telephone call to her US-based sister Lisa, was quoted as saying: "Look, we violated North Korean law and we need our government to help us."
Yonhap quoted a Seoul source as saying the North and the United States have been holding "active consultations" on their fate in recent weeks.
It said President Barack Obama’s administration planned to send Gore as a special envoy but the North rejected the offer, apparently in hopes Washington would send a top-level official authorised to discuss political issues.
The Obama administration has refused to link the journalists’ detention with the nuclear standoff.
Yonhap said Bill Clinton was apparently a compromise choice, saving face for both sides. Another source said he was accompanied by civilians from his charitable foundation, not US government officials.
Seoul analysts said Clinton is highly likely to meet leader Kim, who is widely reported to have suffered a stroke last August.
"By inviting Clinton, Kim will try to prove he has no trouble managing state affairs despite his ailment," said Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University.
"As well as the release of the US journalists, Clinton is expected to discuss a series of political issues including North Korea’s nuclear programme," he told AFP.
"There will be no major breakthrough with his trip alone but I believe it will provide fresh momentum for nuclear disarmament talks."
The North quit six-party disarmament talks after the UN censured its long-range rocket launch in April. Its foreign ministry last week again dismissed the forum but indicated willingness for direct talks with Washington.
South Korea’s Munhwa Ilbo newspaper, quoting a Washington-based source, said Clinton was expected to return to Washington on Wednesday.
The source said the trip was at the request of North Korea, which through diplomatic channels in New York indicated it wanted a visit by either Bill or Hillary Clinton.