SEOUL (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Bill Clinton made a surprise visit to North Korea and met its reclusive leader on Tuesday to try to win freedom for two jailed American journalists in a move that could re-energize nuclear talks.
Clinton, husband of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had what North Korea's KCNA news agency described as an "exhaustive conversation" over dinner with the ailing Kim Jong-il and top North Korean officials.
Arriving in an unmarked jet on a trip to North Korea he had hoped to take before leaving office in January 2001, Clinton was presented with flowers by a girl dressed in traditional costume before he was led to a black limousine and driven away.
Confusion rose quickly about the delicate diplomatic negotiations he was engaged in. The North Korean news agency said Clinton passed on a verbal message from U.S. President Barack Obama.
"Kim Jong-il expressed thanks for this," KCNA said of the message. "He welcomed Clinton's visit to the DPRK (North Korea) and had an exhaustive conversation with him. There was a wide-ranging exchange of views on the matters of common concern."
But the White House denied Clinton carried a message from Obama. "That's not true," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters in Washington.
Clinton's objective was to gain the release of two journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling of U.S. media outlet Current TV co-founded by Clinton's vice president Al Gore.
They were arrested on the North Korea-China border in March and accused of illegal entry. A North Korean court sentenced both of them last month to 12 years hard labor for what it called grave crimes.
Clinton's visit could have a side benefit of improving the atmosphere between the United States and North Korea that could restart talks over the isolated state's nuclear weapons.
North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, was among those greeting Clinton -- whose administration was reported to have considered bombing the North's Yongbyon atomic plant in the early 1990s during a prior time of tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.
"As soon as he arrives, he will be entering negotiations with the North for the release of the female journalists," South Korea's Yonhap news agency quoted a source as saying.
Many analysts predicted Pyongyang would use the journalists as leverage to wring concessions from Washington, which sought to place U.N. sanctions on the North for a May nuclear test.
The White House described Clinton's visit as private.
"While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment. We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton's mission," Gibbs said in a statement.
Clinton's trip followed months of military provocations by the impoverished North, which has turned its back on negotiations with regional powers, including the United States and China, to convince it to give up ambitions to build an atomic arsenal.
In Washington, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said it was not clear whether Clinton had been authorized to discuss policy issues.
"It would be nice if it's the foundation for a better relationship," Graham, a prominent member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told NBC's "Today Show."
Yun Duk-min of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul said the visit held out the possibility of "a dramatic turnaround by North Korea that could lead to a new phase of negotiations."
It is the second time a former U.S. president has headed to the communist state to try to defuse a crisis. Former president Jimmy Carter flew there in 1994 when tensions were running high, again over the North's nuclear weapons program.
Carter helped broker a deal at that time whereby Pyongyang suspended construction of a 50-megawatt plutonium reactor in exchange for heating oil and other energy aid.
A former White House staffer to Bill Clinton said it seemed likely that Clinton would be successful.
"The fact that he's there on the ground, I think means that a lot of groundwork has been done. I can't imagine that he's not going to leave without those two," the official said.
Secretary of State Clinton, flying to Kenya for a trade conference, enraged Pyongyang's leaders last month by likening them to unruly children seeking attention.
One analyst said that was exactly what the former president's visit was doing -- rewarding "bad behavior."
Clinton's arrival coincides with mounting speculation over succession in Asia's only communist dynasty. Several reports suggest that an increasingly frail-looking Kim Jong-il, 67, has settled on his third son to take over.
"It's just what they (North Korea's leaders) need," said B.R. Myers, an expert on the North's state ideology at the South's Dongseo University.
It allows the government to show to a domestic audience, facing deepening poverty, that the nuclear weapons program is making the outside world take it more seriously and the visit will be certain to be portrayed as tribute by the United States.
And it will confirm to North Korea that bad behavior will be rewarded further, Myers said. "It sends all the wrong signals."
(Additional reporting by Yoo Choonsik in Seoul, Lucy Hornby in Beijing, David Morgan and Ross Colvin in Washington; Writing by Jonathan Thatcher and Steve Holland; Editing by Patricia Wilson and Philip Barbara)