The former US president Bill Clinton today met the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang and delivered a verbal message from the current president Barack Obama, official media reported. Mr Clinton arrived in the communist state earlier today to seek the release of two jailed US journalists. Mr Kim hosted a dinner for Mr Clinton at the state guest house and received the message from Mr Obama, according to Radio Pyongyang and the Korean Central Broadcasting Station. The two exchanged "a broad range of opinion" in their talks, according to the broadcasters monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency. The White House in Washington described Mr Clinton's visit as a "solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans" and refused to comment on it. Mr 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. Analysts in Seoul said Mr Clinton would 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.
Mr Clinton and his party were greeted at Pyongyang's Sunan airport by Yang Hyong Sop, the vice president of parliament, and by the vice foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-Gwan, television footage showed. A dark-suited Mr 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 Mr 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 the 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 Mr 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 stand-off. Yonhap said Mr 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. *AFP