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Will Clinton's Trip Get North Korea Talking Again?

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. It certainly was emotional yesterday when two American journalists came home. They'd been released by North Korea and brought home by former President Bill Clinton. Amid that fanfare, there's still a question: Did Clinton's visit create any new openings for returning North Korea to the bargaining table. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

COREY FLINTOFF: North Korea's detention of reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling was just one of many incidents that plunged relations between the U.S. and the isolated communist country to their lowest point in years. In the time between the arrest of the reporters in March and their sentencing to 12 years of hard labor in June, the North Koreans defied U.N. resolutions by testing a nuclear bomb and an array of ballistic missiles. They dropped out of multi-party talks aimed at ending their nuclear weapons program and said they would resume enrichment of uranium.

That's why Korea watchers were intrigued by Bill Clinton's high profile visit to the North and the amount of time he spent with North Korea's ailing leader, Kim Jong Il. This is Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. NICHOLAS EBERSTADT (American Enterprise Institute): It would be awfully hard to stick to talking about those two ladies for three hours and 15 minutes. There clearly would've been a lot of things on the dear leader's agenda and one can imagine that former President Clinton would've been deeply and steeply briefed by our government.

FLINTOFF: The Obama administration isn't saying whether or how Mr. Clinton might's been briefed. But officials have been adamant in maintaining that the mission was a private one.

Professor CHARLES ARMSTRONG (Columbia University): Of course, Bill Clinton is going as a private citizen, not as a representative of the U.S. government. But nevertheless he's been treated almost like a visiting head of state in Pyongyang. And it seems to indicate that this could very well be an important opening for U.S.-North Korean relations going forward.

FLINTOFF: That's Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Columbia University.

Officially, the Obama administration has been insisting that the release of the two reporters is not linked to other issues it wants to discuss with North Korea. The administration has demanded that Pyongyang return to the six-party talks - negotiations between the U.S., North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia aimed at putting an end to the North's nuclear weapons program. But that, says Armstrong, may not be the best way to move ahead.

Prof. ARMSTRONG: In the past, real breakthroughs have generally been made in face-to-face bilateral meetings between the U.S. and North Korea. That is probably the best way to achieve substantial forward momentum in U.S.-North Korean relations.

FLINTOFF: The administration has not ruled out bilateral contacts with North Korea but says they must take place within the framework of the multi-party talks that would include North Korea's neighbors.

Armstrong says that while the U.S. wants to end North Korea's ambition to become a nuclear-armed power, the North Koreans want assurances that the U.S. won't attack them. And ultimately they want a signed peace agreement that would officially end the Korean War after nearly 60 years. But Nicholas Eberstadt doubts that negotiations would achieve much at this point.

Mr. EBERSTADT: Our approach, I think, should not be one of hoping and praying for a sudden change of mind in Pyongyang and reaching some sort of diplomatic breakthrough. We should be taking practical steps to assure threat reduction from our standpoint for our interests and for the interests of our allies.

FLINTOFF: Eberstadt says that means providing better defenses for South Korea and better law enforcement to dry up North Korea's sources of foreign income from illegal activities, such as counterfeiting.

If there are diplomatic moves between the two countries, it's likely that they won't be made public anytime soon. Armstrong says the most likely scenario is that there would be quiet contact between the two sides through the so-called New York channel to the North Korea mission to the United Nations.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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