WASHINGTON — With two journalists who'd been detained in North Korea safely back on U.S. soil, the Obama administration Wednesday adopted a wait-and-see stance over whether the humanitarian breakthrough will lead to renewed talks on the more pernicious question of the North's nuclear weapons.
"This can't hurt, but it won't necessarily help," said a senior administration official involved in North Korea policy. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the topic's sensitivity.
The White House and State Department worked aggressively to dispel the notion that U.S. concessions on the nuclear front led to the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who arrived in California early Wednesday after former President Bill Clinton secured their release.
Obama aides said that North Korea must demonstrate that it's ready to abide by past pledges to dismantle its nuclear weapons, and should return to six-nation nuclear talks that it pulled out of this spring. The North has instead been seeking direct talks with the U.S.
"I don't think we know yet" whether there will be an improved atmosphere for talks, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said. "The ball is really in the North's court."
The stern talk was aimed at dispelling any impression in Pyongyang that it had scored an instant improvement in relations with Washington by releasing Ling and Lee. Clinton was the highest-ranking U.S. visitor to North Korea in nine years. Such visits are eagerly sought-after by the image-conscious Koreans, and photographs appeared to show North Korean leader Kim Jong Il elated at the turn of events.
The three hours and 15 minutes that Clinton spent in meetings and a dinner with the normally reclusive Kim also represented a unique opportunity to assess his views on the nuclear question — and the health of the "Dear Leader," who may have suffered a stroke last year.
The White House hasn't yet been able to formally debrief the former president about his talks with Kim. That session is tentatively scheduled to take place Friday, and is likely to involve top White House officials, as well as specialists from the State Department and intelligence agencies.
Clinton was given two U.S. government briefings before leaving for North Korea, the second one Saturday, a second senior U.S. official told reporters in a conference call late Tuesday.
Clinton wasn't the only envoy considered. North Korea also appeared to signal at one point it would accept a visit by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose office was involved in the behind-the-scenes diplomacy. However, a White House official said, "We didn't take the Kerry (invitation from North Korea) to be real" and settled on Clinton as the envoy who could produce the journalists' freedom.
Clinton's delegation included John Podesta, his former chief of staff; David Straub, a former State Department specialist on Korea; Doug Band, another Clinton White House aide; and Roger Band, his brother, who served as Clinton's personal physician.
The presence of Clinton's personal physician not only provided for an early check on Lee's and Ling's health and for any emergency treatment that might be needed, but it also gave an American doctor a rare first-hand, if fleeting, look at North Korea's reclusive leader, whose health has been a subject of debate in the U.S. intelligence community.
While the White House denied that Clinton delivered a message from President Barack Obama to the North Koreans, an official briefed on the trip said that the former president did express Obama's appreciation for the release of the two journalists, which he said signals that the administration is open to further discussions with Kim's regime.
However, the official said, Clinton's visit produced no new clues about whether the journalists' release may lead to renewed discussions on North Korea's nuclear program or other issues.
Negotiations with North Korea, which had been going well, broke down in the Bush administration's final months over U.S. insistence that Pyongyang submit to detailed verification of its declaration of its nuclear programs.
Earlier this year, the North began taking a series of provocative steps, including the April test firing of a long-range missile, which prompted the U.N. to impose tougher sanctions. Critically, those sanctions were supported by China, the North's principal ally.
North Korea responded to the sanctions by announcing its pullout from the six-nation nuclear talks. On May 25, it conducted an underground nuclear test.
Daniel Sneider, the associate director of Stanford University's Asia-Pacific Research Center, said that whether the trajectory will change depends on the contents of the talks between Clinton and Kim.
"I take them at their word" that Clinton carried no message on the nuclear issue from Obama, Sneider said, but, "I also assume that if you spend a day talking with the North Korean leadership, the conversation went beyond" the two journalists' fate.
"I'm a skeptic, because of what we've seen in the last year or so" from North Korea, Sneider said, noting that the country faces "multiple crises," including economic problems, a more hard-line South Korean government, and a potential power succession from Kim to this third son. "Are they ready to respond in a different way? I don't know."
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