Bill Clinton goes to North Korea

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. Former President Bill Clinton's surprise visit to North Korea appears to have worked. North Korea's news agency says Laura Ling and Euna Lee have been pardoned and will be released. The American journalists were arrested last March and convicted of what North Korea said were hostile acts. Clinton arrived in Pyongyang today to try to get them out of prison. He was greeted warmly and had a meeting with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il. The announcement of a pardon from Kim came several hours later. As The World's Matthew Bell reports today's events could signal a change in US/North Korean relations.

MATTHEW BELL: The North Koreans went big on this story today. Their official news agency's English language site had a banner headline reading Bill Clinton arrives here. Footage from North Korean state television showed Clinton getting off a private plane and then being greeted by a little girl with a giant bouquet of flowers.

[SOUND CLIP OF NEWSREADER SPEAKING KOREAN]

A newsreader gave some details of Clinton's visit. She said the dear leader Kim Jung-Il met with former US President Bill Clinton and went on to say that Clinton respectfully delivered a verbal message to Kim from the current US president, Barack Obama. She said Kim expressed his thanks and then the two men had exhaustive discussions that included a wide-ranging exchange of views. Meanwhile the White House kept mostly quiet about Clinton's mission. Spokesman Robert Gibbs however made one thing clear. He said President Obama did not give Bill Clinton a message to pass along to Kim Jong-Il. The administration was also clear that Clinton's visit was carried out in a private capacity. For months North Korea watchers had predicted that it would take some kind of high level visit to free the two American journalists. Mike Chinoy is a former Asia correspondent for CNN and the author of a book about the nuclear standoff with North Korea called meltdown. Chinoy says Clinton was the perfect emissary for the job but beyond that today's meeting between Clinton and Kim Jong-Il could change the direction of US North Korea relations.

MIKE CHINOY: The North Korean's have a soft spot for Bill Clinton because they invited him to come to Pyongyang in the waning months of his presidency and he clearly wanted to go to meet Kim Jong-Il. There are clearly very tough issues still but I think Former President Clinton will come back with the best sense that any American official will have had of Kim Jong-Il physical state, his mental state, what's on his mind politically and that will be of enormous use to the Obama Administration in figuring out where to go on the diplomatic process.

BELL: Clinton is the first prominent American to sit across the table from Kim Jong-Il in nearly a decade. The last to do so was Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright. That was in 2000. And Robert Carlin traveled with her. He's a former intelligence official and an expert in North Korea. Carlin says back then, just as with the photos of today's meeting between Clinton and Kim, he was struck by how happy Kim Jong-Il appeared to be in the presence of Americans.

ROBERT CARLIN: In one sense this is what he was striving for for so long � to get a more positive relationship underway with the Americans which would transform a lot of his problems � economic, international relations, etcetera. And it would be a real achievement, a serious achievement, for him.

BELL: Carlin says the timing of today's visit is significant. Kim Jong-Il is reported to have suffered from a stroke or worse. There are rumors of a succession struggle going on in North Korea and after conducting a second nuclear test this spring the North has sent signals that it's willing to return to the bargaining table. But again big questions remain. For North Korea's part will it agree to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for financial and security guarantees from the US and will the Obama Administration make that kind of a deal with North Korea when a similar bargain made by Bill Clinton in 1994 fell apart in 2002. For The World I'm Matthew Bell.