Posted August. 05, 2009 07:33,
The release of two American female journalists detained in North Korea is one of the most pressing issues for the U.S. government.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who worked for the San Francisco-based Current TV, were taken into custody March 17 while covering North Korean defectors around the North Korean-Chinese border near the Duman River.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has paid close attention to the two journalists. More importantly, however, the matter is a barometer for a change in relations between Washington and Pyongyang in the wake of North Koreas long-range missile launch and its second nuclear test.
Given the lack of progress in the two reporters release despite U.S. efforts, Washington has discussed deploying a special envoy to the communist country. Two of the candidates mentioned are former U.S. Vice President and Current TV co-founder Al Gore and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who traveled twice to North Korea to secure the release of Americans detained there in the 1990s.
In June, the two reporters were sentenced to 12 years in prison for committing a crime against the North Korean people and illegally entering the country. The unexpectedly heavy punishment received mixed responses. Some said it signaled North Koreas intention to release the reporters early while others predicted a long prison term for them in the communist country.
Ling and Lee, however, are reportedly being detained in a guesthouse near Pyongyang, not a camp for hard labor.
The U.S. is also said to have contacted the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York. Secretary Clinton told reporters July 20 that she was optimistic over the release of the reporters. The U.S. is known to have found a solution through behind-the-scene negotiations with North Korean diplomats at the U.N., according to experts.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood told a briefing the next day that Washington has talked to Pyongyang whenever necessary. He added that the U.S. has various channels to talk to North Korea, including the New York channel.
Afterwards, North Korea is said to have agreed on the dispatch of a high-ranking U.S. official whom the communist country wants to receive, and begin negotiations over detailed procedures. The two countries at the time agreed on the release of the reporters but not on the position of the envoy, according to experts.
North Korea tried to use the dispatch politically by linking it to its nuclear program in promoting bilateral talks with the U.S. instead of sticking to the six-party talks. Washington reportedly then decided to send a private individual instead of a U.S. official.
This decision was made last week at the White House. Democratic Senator John Kerry, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was reportedly considered as an envoy. The final selection of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, however, was made because he is now a private citizen.
Politically, the selection of Bill Clinton will give a lighter burden to the U.S. government. Furthermore, his standing as a former U.S. president and the husband of the incumbent secretary of state will satisfy North Korea.
The former president is said to have willingly accepted the mission because of its humanitarian purpose of rescuing Americans.