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Bill Clinton in North Korea to free U.S. journalists

August 4, 2009 |  6:53 am

Former President Bill Clinton is greeted with flowers as he arrived in North Korea to negotiate the release of jailed American journalist Laura Ling and Euna Lee Aug. 4, 2009

Finally, the Obama administration has figured out how to take advantage of former President Clinton's skills as a savvy political negotiator. We hope.

The 42nd president landed today in North Korea to negotiate the release of the two American journalists who were arrested in March while trying to report on the trafficking of women along the China-North Korea border. Working for Al Gore's Current TV -- a cable television network that allows viewers to contribute stories -- Laura Ling and Euna Lee were convicted in June of "grave crimes" and sentenced to 12 years in the notorious North Korean labor camps.

The Obama administration considered sending other envoys, according to the Washington Post, which quoted Asian expert Chris Nelson as saying Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was on the short list. Others had no doubt lobbied for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who negotiated the release of other Americans from oppressive regimes. Some even thought Al Gore, Clinton's vice president, might have been a logical choice. CNN reports the North Koreans vetoed them.

But Clinton is a smart pick. His wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been lobbying the North Koreans for months on the journalists' behalf. A victory would be important to her. In addition, in the regime's eyes, Clinton is perhaps the most popular U.S. president -- a leader who negotiated a 1994 deal that compelled the North Koreans to freeze a plutonium-based nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. In a sign of approval, Clinton was greeted at the airport by government officials and a little girl bearing flowers.

You may recall there was a bit of, well, tension between the Obama and Clinton forces during the campaign. If the former president succeeds, it could soften the edge. And Georgetown University professor Victor Cha thinks he will. "It would be very difficult for the North not to give these people up" to a former U.S. president, he said.

And some are even hoping Clinton does more. South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham said on the "Today" show this morning that he hopes the former president can ease tensions with North Korea over its nuclear program.

For its part, the White House is playing it close to the vest. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs issued a statement this morning saying: "While this solely private mission to secure the release of 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."

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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