Two American journalists in North Korea go home

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. It was an emotional scene in Burbank, California this morning when two Asian American women stepped off a plane and were reunited with their loved ones.

LAURA LING: Thirty hours ago Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea.

MULLINS: Laura Ling said she and Euna Lee lived in fear that at any moment they'd be sent to a North Korean labor camp.

LING: And then suddenly we were told that we were going to a meeting. We were taken to a location and when we walked in through the doors we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton.

MULLINS: Ling said they knew instantly that their nightmare was about to end. She thanked all those involved in securing their release including complete strangers who prayed for them. To President Obama and former Vice President Al Gore as well. It was the internet media company Current TV founded by Al Gore that Ling and Lee were working for when they were detained near North Korea's border with China. Al Gore stepped up to the microphone to say a few words of thanks as well.

AL GORE: It speaks well of our country that when two American citizens are in harms way that so many people would just put things aside and just go to work to make sure that this has had a happy ending and we are so grateful to all of them.

MULLINS: In Washington President Obama made a schedule change to welcome Ling and Lee home and to offer his thanks.

BARACK OBAMA: Not only is this White House obviously extraordinarily happy but all Americans should be grateful to both Former President Clinton and Vice President Gore for their extraordinary work.

MULLINS: Mr. Obama might also be thankful for the way Bill Clinton handled what was a delicate mission. The World's Matthew Bell explains.

MATTHEW BELL: Bill Clinton did something uncharacteristic this morning in Burbank he stepped away from a microphone and a crowd of reporters without saying a word. Clinton was probably mindful of something that happened to him as president back in 1994. The US and North Korea were on a path to military confrontation over North Korea's nuclear program. With Clinton's blessing former President Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang to meet face-to-face with North Korea's Great Leader Kim Il-Sung. He's the father of Kim Jong-Il and the founder of North Korea. Like Clinton was yesterday Carter was there as a private citizen but he engaged in real negotiations on nuclear issues and then he did a live interview from Pyongyang.

JIMMY CARTER: This morning I had fairly definitive and important discussions with President Kim Il-Sung and we resolved two or three major points.

BELL: The Clinton White House was horrified that Jimmy Carter was conducting independent diplomacy. One official reportedly fumed that this bordered on treason. Fast forward to Clinton's trip and what you see is a much more scripted and better coordinated operation.

RICHARD BUSH: His wife is secretary state. For there not have been full and complete coordination in that kind of situation doesn't strike me as possible at all.

BELL: Richard Bush is an Asia expert at the Brookings Institution. He says Clinton's body language in those pictures from Pyongyang tell us the story.

BUSH: For example the formal photograph he's looking straight ahead. He doesn't really have much of a smile on his face. There's a gap between him and Kim in terms of the placement of the chairs. It just seemed like he was just going through the motions of the formal meetings because he was a guest but he knew why he was there.

BELL: On that point the Obama White House has been clear. Clinton was on a private humanitarian mission and bringing those two American journalists home was entirely separate from the outstanding issues between the US and North Korea. The administration officials also deny that Bill Clinton had a message from President Obama for Kim Jong-Il. If that turns out to be true says Joel Wit of Columbia University it would be a mistake. Wit is a former state department official who spent several years negotiating with the North Koreans on nuclear issues.

JOEL WIT: The bottom line here is that in order to solve or manage � to even manage � the problems presented by North Korea there has to be some dialogue. There has to be some negotiation. And so the opportunity to meet with Kim Jong-Il, which doesn't come very often actually for foreigners, that opportunity should not be squandered. And so I hope that the administration did have a message for him that was relayed by Clinton.

BELL: Wit agrees that Clinton's visit was a highly disciplined affair unlike the one Carter took 15 years ago. However Wit says the conversation between Clinton and Kim Jong-Il must have wondered off script.
WIT: It's kind of hard to figure out what they would sit there and talk about for three hours you know if they didn't talk about policy issues. You know they could kind of talk about their families, or talk about the weather, or talk about the airplane flight. But the point is that it's hard to imagine that they didn't sit there and discuss some of these bigger issues.

BELL: And if Clinton did have a green light from the Obama administration to say one thing to Kim Jong-Il what was it? Again Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution.

BUSH: North Korea cannot ensure its security, domestic stability, and economic prosperity by basing its defense policy on the possession on nuclear weapons.

BELL: In other words Washington does intend to recognize North Korea as a nuclear armed nation. Both Hilary Clinton and President Obama made statements along those same lines today. For The World I'm Matthew Bell.