Former US president Bill Clinton is reported to have arrived in North Korea to try to secure the release of two detained American journalists.
An aircraft believed to be carrying the ex-US leader landed at Sunan Airport in Pyongyang at 10.48am local time on Tuesday, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
South Korean media reports suggest Clinton – husband of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – will negotiate to free reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee, jailed in North Korea since March.
“I understand that no US government officials are included in former president Clinton’s delegation,” an unnamed diplomatic source told Chosun Ilbo.
A South Korean foreign ministry official handling US affairs said he could not comment. “It should be confirmed by the US government,” the official said.
In Washington DC, State Department spokesman Andrew Laine said he had no comment.
Pair sentenced to 12 years hard labour
If the reports are confirmed, Clinton would be the highest-profile American to visit the hardline communist state since his secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 2000.
Relations between the North and the United States and its allies are at their worst for years following Pyongyang’s second nuclear test on May 25 and subsequent United Nations sanctions.
On July 4 – US Independence Day – North Korea test-fired seven ballistic missiles in defiance of the sanctions, but also indicated last week it was open to dialogue with Washington.
Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested on March 17 near the border with China while reporting on refugees fleeing impoverished North Korea.
A Pyongyang court in June sentenced them to 12 years of “reform through labour” for illegal entry and an unspecified “grave crime”.
The pair work for California-based Current TV, co-founded by Clinton’s vice president Al Gore.
Reporters accused of ‘smear campaign’
North Korea’s official media have said Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, admitted to a politically motivated smear campaign.
It said they crossed the border illegally “for the purpose of making animation files to be used for an anti-DPRK (North Korea) smear campaign over its human rights issue”.
Media freedom groups have slammed the sentences against the pair, while their families and Hillary Clinton have appealed for their release on humanitarian grounds.
Yonhap quoted a Seoul source as saying North Korea and the US have been holding “active consultations” on their fate in recent weeks.
It said the US reportedly planned to send Gore as a special envoy but the North rejected the offer, apparently in hopes Washington would send a top-level official authorised to discuss political issues.
The Obama administration has refused to link the journalists’ detention with the nuclear standoff.
Yonhap said Bill Clinton was apparently a compromise choice, saving face for both sides. Another source said he is accompanied by civilians from his charitable foundation, not US government officials.