Doubt cast on 'private' nature of Clinton's N. Korea trip

President Bill Clinton's surprise visit to North Korea wasn't likely planned without the White House, Clinton's former NATO ambassador told The Hill on Tuesday.

Clinton landed in Pyongyang on Tuesday and promptly met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, according to the state-run media in the tightly controlled communist nation. His visit was billed as an effort to secure the release of two journalists, but also came after North Korea has tested the region's nerves by pressing forward with its nuclear weapons program.

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"Bill Clinton courteously conveyed a verbal message of U.S. President Barack Obama to Kim Jong-il," the official Korean Central News Agency reported.

"Kim Jong-il expressed thanks for this. He welcomed Clinton's visit to the DPRK [North Korea] and had an exhaustive conversation with him."

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs flatly denied that Clinton carried a message from Obama, telling reporters, "That's not true."

Gibbs declined to comment on Clinton's mission, saying, "While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment."

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, journalists working for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV, were arrested near China's border with North Korea on March 17. The two were quickly convicted of illegal entry and "hostile acts" and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.

But a former Clinton administration official told The Hill that a former president traveling to North Korea surely had President Obama behind his mission, regardless if Clinton did or didn't carry a specific message to deliver to Kim.

"You don't deploy somebody of that magnitude without an understanding of what's going on," said Robert Hunter, a senior adviser at RAND Corp. who served as NATO ambassador under Clinton. "Clinton didn't show up in an airplane and just land; that's not something you do.

"The former president wouldn't go unless he had the backing of the president and there was a clear understanding that the journalists would be released," Hunter said. "The risk of embarrassment is too great if he came back empty-handed."

John Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador under President George W. Bush, called the White House's comments "disingenuous."

"There's no such thing as a private trip when you're the former president and your wife is the secretary of State," Bolton told The Hill.

"I'd be stunned if he didn't have a message from his wife," he added. "I'd be stunned if he didn't leave with those reporters."

Kim reportedly hosted a state dinner for Clinton on Tuesday. The high-level visit raised speculation about what the former president may offer for the journalists' release, but both ambassadors said his presence was enough of a public-relations gift for Kim, who beamed in photos taken with Clinton and released by the state-run media.

"I hope not," Hunter said when asked if Clinton would be offering incentives in exchange for the journalists. "The carrot is the former president went.

"If you give them something tangible, then they'll just grab someone else," he added.

Bolton felt that even the gesture of Clinton's trip sent the wrong message and could lead to further actions against Americans by terrorists and rogue states. "When you send in a former president, you're really rewarding bad behavior," Bolton said. "We've given them something simply by him showing up.

"We have played into their strategy, which is unfortunate in the risk that it sets up for  the future," Bolton added.

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The trip comes at a time of steep tension between North Korea and its neighbors over recent missile test-launches and an atomic test in May. A month ago, North Korea launched nearly a dozen missiles into the Sea of Japan.

The timing has also led to speculation that Clinton may be on a mission for the Obama administration to restart six-party talks.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he was trying to get something else," Hunter said. "But frankly, we don't have the kind of influence required. That comes from China.

"The real objective is to get the Chinese into the game," he said. "I hope what we're asking for is six-party talks."

Bolton, referencing word that the Obama administration was devising "another package of carrots" for North Korea, said he wouldn't be surprised if Clinton carried word of new incentives to Kim. The former ambassador added that "the administration certainly wants South Korea to take a softer line" with the North.

"I don't have any doubt that the administration would like to get the six-party talks restarted," Bolton said. "I don't think North Korea is going to be negotiated out of its nuclear program."