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Waiting for Next Move From North Korea

Political scientists debate Bill Clinton's meeting with Kim Jong Il that led to freedom for two detained American journalists. Transcript of radio broadcast:

This is IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

Former president Bill Clinton made a surprise visit to North Korea on Tuesday. He met with its leader to gain the release of two detained American journalists.

Kim Jong Il gave Laura Ling and Euna Lee what North Korean media called a special pardon. The women were arrested in March near the border with China. They were sentenced in June to face twelve years of hard labor for illegally entering North Korea. They were working for Current TV, a media company chaired by Mister Clinton's former vice president, Al Gore.

The surprise visit came at a time when the United States and other countries have been putting more pressure on North Korea. They increased economic actions against North Korea after it launched missiles and tested a nuclear device. The North also withdrew from six-nation talks on nuclear disarmament. All this happened since January, when President Obama took office.

Peter Brookes is an Asia-Pacific expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. He says Mister Clinton's visit could be seen as the United States softening its policy on North Korea.

PETER BROOKES: "There's no penalty for the things that they've done. We could get into a situation here of a moral hazard by rewarding bad behavior. We are going to be getting more of it."

But Dennis Wilder of the Brookings Institution in Washington says the United States had no choice.

DENNIS WILDER: "I think the decision to allow him to go was the right one because it got the journalists home. And, as a private citizen on a humanitarian mission, that was very good."

The former president went with the approval of the Obama administration. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says her husband's trip was not an official visit.

HILLARY CLINTON: "We have successfully completed a humanitarian mission that was a private mission."

President Obama spoke about the two women shortly after they met with their families at an airport near Los Angeles.

BARACK OBAMA: "The reunion that we've all seen on television, I think, is a source of happiness not only for the families but also for the entire country."

But critics say the United States gave North Korea the two things it demanded. One was a high-level visit. The other was an apology for the illegal entry. Secretary Clinton gave that apology last month:

HILLARY CLINTON: "I think everyone is very sorry that it happened."

There are no diplomatic relations between North Korea and the United States. The last time an American official visited the North was nine years ago during Mister Clinton's presidency.

Observers say North Korea is attempting to reconnect with the United States now that it has a new president. The international community will be watching and waiting to see what happens next.

The secretary of state also traveled this week. She began an eleven-day trip to Africa. Secretary Clinton arrived in Kenya Tuesday for talks with that country's leaders. She also met with the leader of Somalia and expressed support for its Transitional Federal Government. She warned Eritrea to end its support for groups fighting to control Somalia.

Next she traveled to South Africa. Her trip also includes stops in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Liberia and Cape Verde.

And that's IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.