SEOUL AND WASHINGTON — Former President Clinton arrived in North Korea today in a dramatic bid to negotiate the release of two American TV journalists sentenced to 12 years in prison for illegally entering the secretive nation earlier this year.
Clinton, the husband of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, is the highest-profile U.S. official to visit North Korea in nearly a decade. His surprise visit signals the Obama administration's readiness to engage the communist dictatorship, even as Washington presses other nations to curb ties with the country, which recently resumed its nuclear program and tested ballistic missiles in defiance of United Nations resolutions.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee of San Francisco-based Current TV were taken into custody in March near the border with China while reporting on refugees fleeing North Korea. They were sentenced to hard labor for illegal entry and "hostile acts."
Lisa Ling, the sister of reporter Laura Ling, said Monday that the family could not comment on the report.
"Everything is just so delicate," she said. "We're going to wait it out a while longer. We're on pins and needles."
White House and State Department officials declined to comment on the mission, as did a spokeswoman for former Vice President Al Gore, a co-founder of Current TV. But another U.S. official, who declined to be identified, confirmed the mission. He said the Clintons were approached by the journalists' families when it became clear the North Koreans would permit a visit.
U.S. officials and North Korea watchers have predicted for some time that Pyongyang could be open to a visit from a high-ranking dignitary to discuss the women's imprisonment.
With its love of pomp and circumstance, North Korea in the past has used celebrity visits for propaganda, trying to show that the outside world validates its system of government.
Scott Snyder of the nonprofit Asia Foundation said Clinton's standing as a world statesman carried weight with Pyongyang.
"The North Koreans have a lot of nostalgia for the end of the Clinton administration," he said.
"The question is going to be how could he go to Pyongyang without some assurance that they would be released," Snyder said.
"For someone at his level to go without a prior assurance of some kind would be to risk a huge loss of face."
The mission is especially delicate because U.S.-North Korean relations have fallen to a low point in recent months as the North has conducted a nuclear test, test-fired a series of missiles and broken off long-running disarmament talks.
U.S. officials have been debating whether to send an envoy. The mission poses the risk that the North will try to link the release to concessions on the nuclear issue, an effort the U.S. will want to resist, officials say.
Clinton's mission represents his first role for the Obama administration and another chapter in the two Clintons' long-intertwined public lives. Although Bill Clinton has not yet traveled with his wife in her official capacity as top U.S. diplomat, aides have not ruled out that the former president, who is involved in a number of international causes, would take part in some activity related to American diplomacy.
The visit comes at a time when the 67-year-old leader Kim Jong Il is reported to be gravely ill, having had a stroke last summer and, according to South Korean media reports, possibly suffering from pancreatic cancer.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think tank, said Clinton's visit will give the United States a rare opportunity to assess not only Kim's health, but who is actually making the decisions in North Korea.
"For me, this is a stroke of genius on the part of the Obama administration," said Cossa. "Kim Jong Il will have to meet with a former U.S. president. Given his ego and desire for attention, this is a photo opportunity he doesn't want to miss. If he doesn't meet with Clinton, we'll know he is on life support."
Neither the White House nor the State Department has said whether a meeting with the North Korean leader is planned.
An irony in the choice of Clinton is that Hillary Clinton and North Korean officials have recently engaged in a round of unusual name calling. She compared the regime to schoolchildren clamoring for attention, while the North Koreans described her as a "funny lady" and a pensioner.
But Hillary Clinton has been deeply involved in the case of the two journalists and has been trying to separate it from the larger U.S.-North Korean security dispute. At a recent town hall meeting at the State Department, Clinton sought to make progress by conveying the women's regret for what they had done and asking for amnesty.
"The two journalists and their families have expressed great remorse for this incident, and I think everyone is very sorry that it happened," she said during a question-and- answer session with State Department employees.