Kim Jong-Il opens line to US by setting scribes free

WASHINGTON: North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il has deftly changed a tense game of nuclear brinksmanship with Washington by allowing a former US president to rescue two imprisoned journalists, analysts said today.

Bill Clinton’s surprise visit to Pyongyang and the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who flew home to an emotional reunion on Wednesday, opened a new path that could lead to renewed negotiations, they said.

But whether Pyongyang’s latest move was a ground-breaking overture as an ailing Kim makes plans for his succession or just one more twist in a 15-year diplomatic struggle over its nuclear programme remained unclear.

“They played this game before,” said New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who has served as a special envoy to North Korea.

“At a time when we have enormous tensions between the two countries, in the past and now, what the North Koreans do is they pull out a card,” he told CBS television.

“In this case, the capture of these journalists in March was a perfect card that they could use to send a message to America through an American envoy.” It was not known what message, if any, Clinton carried home from the visit, which included a rare state dinner with Kim, who in photographs looked thin and frail next to his American guest.

But analysts said their discussions may have given Clinton insights into North Korea’s thinking on the current impasse over its nuclear weapons programmes as well as the state of Kim’s health.

And Clinton would have had the opportunity to give the North Koreans his own views of the situation.

The White House has denied Clinton conveyed a message from President Barack Obama, who himself signalled no dramatic shift in policy, insisting the visit was strictly a humanitarian mission.

“We have said to the North Koreans there is a path for improved relations, and it involves them no longer developing nuclear weapons and not engaging in the provocative behaviour they have been engaging in,” he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke to her husband after the journalists released, echoed that line. But the State Department helped clear the way for the former president’s “private” trip through diplomatic contacts with the North Koreans. Clinton’s entourage included two State Department officials, a spokesman said.

Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert, said the Clinton visit “broadened the bandwidth for messages to be passed between Washington and Pyongyang.

“Information gained from the Clinton visit may have some influence on the direction of the administration’s North Korean policy,” he said in comments posted on the Council on Foreign Relation’s website.