Bill Clinton to the rescue

The former president's trip may be successful in securing the release of two American journalists

Topics: Bill Richardson, Bill Clinton, War Room, Jimmy Carter, Middle East,

Update: Clinton’s mission was successful, and Kim Jong Il has pardoned the two journalists. See this post for more.

In a surprise visit, former President Bill Clinton arrived Tuesday in Pyongyang, North Korea, to meet with the isolated nation’s leader, Kim Jong Il. While North Korea’s nuclear program and recent spate of missile tests have caused growing consternation around the world, the main purpose of Clinton’s trip was to negotiate for the release of two U.S. journalists currently imprisoned there.

ABC News is now reporting that Clinton also met with the jailed reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. A government source described the meeting as highly emotional but told ABC that those on Clinton’s team in North Korea are hopeful the journalists could be released as early as tomorrow.

Clinton has a loose connection to the jailed reporters. Both work for Current TV, a news and media venture headed by Clinton’s former vice-president, Al Gore. Ling and Lee were arrested on the border between North Korea and China in March. In June, they were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for what North Korea said was their illegal entry into the country, as well as engaging in undefined actions deemed hostile to the communist country.

The White House has thus far remained reserved when discussing Clinton’s trip. North Korean media said Clinton shared a message from President Obama, but White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs released a statement in which he said, “While this solely private mission to secure the release of the two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment … We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton’s mission.”

However, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., seemed somewhat confused by the decision to send Clinton. On the “Today” show this morning, he said of Clinton’s visit that “I don’t know what this is,” though he expressed hope that the visit could lead to progress on limiting North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.


There is a long history in the U.S. of notable political emissaries traveling across the globe to try to free hostages.

Perhaps the most memorable diplomatic mission was the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1999 trip to Belgrade to ask for the release of three U.S. soldiers held as prisoners of war by then Yugoslav president (and war criminal) Slobodan Milosevic. The trip was controversial because Jackson made the journey without the blessing of the Clinton White House. That he actually convinced Milosevic to release the soldiers after the Clinton administration had been unable to do so made Jackson’s fame as a hostage-release negotiator grow. The civil rights leader has worked as a diplomat in similar circumstances numerous times over his career: He was able to get hostages released from Syria in 1984, from Cuba in 1987 and from Kuwait and Iraq in 1990 — all without official presidential or congressional approval.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who had been discussed as a possible liaison to negotiate the return of Lee and Ling, brokered the release of U.S. hostages from North Korea in the 1990s. Richardson has also helped secure the release of hostages from Iraq, Cuba and Sudan and most recently met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to seek his support in getting a Colombian Marxist guerrilla group to release three U.S. contractors they’ve detained since 2003. Colombian commandos eventually freed the hostages, along with Ingrid Betancourt, in June 2008.

And in one of the most embarrassing hostage situations the U.S. ever faced, President Jimmy Carter proved unable to negotiate with Iran for the release of 52 Americans held after the overthrow of the shah during the Iranian revolution. A daring military operation to free the hostages also failed. Iran eventually released the hostages once President Ronald Reagan took office. Later in his presidency, Reagan suffered a major political scandal when it was revealed that his administration had sold arms to Iran in an attempt to gain the release of seven American hostages being held in Lebanon by Iranian terrorists.

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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