By Steve Holland - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After his talks with reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Bill Clinton sure has a story to tell.
And one of the first in line to hear his tale is President Barack Obama.
“I suspect that President Clinton will have some interesting observations from his trip and I will let him provide those to me,” Obama told MSNBC on Wednesday.
The former president was chosen by the North Koreans from among four possible envoys proposed to them to try to gain freedom for two American reporters sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea.
Other candidates for the task were other prominent Democrats: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and the man who served as Clinton’s vice president, Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore.
Thus, Clinton became the most senior American envoy to spend time face-to-face with Kim in nearly a decade.
Kim is ailing and is widely believed to have suffered a stroke in August 2008. There have been rumors about pancreatic cancer and uncertainty about who will succeed him.
North Korea-watchers in and out of the U.S. government are wanting to know how he looked, how he seemed and what he talked about.
Some analysts have speculated Clinton’s visit could open the way to direct talks with the communist state over its nuclear weapons program.
“I think it’ll be very interesting,” said Republican Senator John McCain. “He’s the first Westerner to see Kim since his reported stroke and other problems. I think former President Clinton will have some interesting information.”
In the secret negotiations that led to the rescue mission, Clinton made clear to Obama administration officials he only wanted to go if he had some certainty that Americans Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, would be released to his custody.
“We considered the request carefully,” said a senior administration official. “We tested directly with the North Koreans repeatedly. We sought and received North Korea’s agreement in fact that a visit by President Clinton would secure the release of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee.”
Clinton had a meeting with Kim for an hour and 15 minutes and a dinner with him that lasted about two hours. In Clinton’s entourage were his former White House chief of staff, John Podesta, and Clinton’s personal physician, Roger Band.
Asia expert Nick Szechenyi of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the up-close look at Kim was probably one of the most fascinating aspects of Clinton’s visit.
“Instead of trying to analyze photographs, for example, and trying to determine the extent of any physical damage that might have been incurred as a result of a stroke, Bill Clinton was able to sit down for a couple of hours and engage this individual face to face,” he said.
“That’s incredible and in that sense it’s kind of a shock that the North Koreans allowed this,” he said.
A congressional aide who asked to remain unidentified said: “President Clinton is going to be able to offer a candid assessment of North Korea and the state of the Dear Leader’s health, who’s in charge, the leadership organizational chart. He’s going to be able to impart a great deal.”
Clinton’s mission gave Obama a foreign policy success at a time when he could use one, given that his job approval ratings have been drooping a bit.
It allowed Clinton to bask in the kind of American spotlight he has not enjoyed in some time. Politico called him an “international man of history” and the New York Post declared, “Bubba gets the chicks.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama wanted to get together with Clinton soon.
Will Obama seek out Clinton again?
“Look, I think if the president is ever looking for people to help, former presidents are always a pretty good group to try,” said Gibbs.
Editing by Peter Cooney