In this image taken from a footage shot by APTN, Former US President Bill Clinton receives a bouquet of flowers upon his arrival at an airport in Pyongyang, DPRK, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009. [Agencies]
SEOUL: Former US President Bill Clinton made a surprise trip to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) on Tuesday amid an international standoff over the country's nuclear program and concerns about two US reporters imprisoned in Pyongyang since March.
Clinton landed in Pyongyang on Tuesday and was greeted at the airport by DPRK officials, including chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan, DPRK state news agency said in a brief dispatch. "A little girl presented a bouquet to Bill Clinton," the report said.
His visit comes amid heightened tensions over DPRK's string of nuclear and missile tests in defiance of UN resolutions, and calls from Washington for amnesty for the two reporters.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, journalists for former Vice President Al Gore's California-based Current TV media venture, were arrested in March while on a reporting trip to the Chinese-DPRK border. They were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts."
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton requested amnesty for the women last month, asking that they be allowed to return to their families in California. Both are married, and Lee has a 4-year-old daughter. Negotiations for their release are believed to have taken place behind the scenes since Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations.
American journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling are shown in this undated file photo from Yonhap news agency. [Agencies]
Lee's husband, Michael Saldate, declined to comment late Monday on Bill Clinton's trip. A message left for Iain Clayton, Ling's husband, was not returned.
Bill Clinton would be the second former U.S. president to visit the DPRK; Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang in 1994, when Clinton was in office, and met with then-DPRK leader Kim Il Sung, late father of current leader Kim Jong Il.
That visit also occurred at a time of spiraling nuclear tensions _ and led to a breakthrough accord between the two sides just months later.
Analysts say the DPRK could use the detained reporters as a negotiating card to win concessions from Washington.
Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said Clinton's visit could serve two purposes: securing the women's release and improving ties between Washington and Pyongyang, which do not have diplomatic relations.
"I think it's not just about journalists. It will serve as a turning point in the US-North Korea (DPRK) relations," he said.
In New York, the Clinton Foundation did not immediately return calls, and Gore's spokeswoman, Kalee Kreider, said she could not comment. At the White House, Deputy Press Secretary Tommy Vietor said he had no comment.
Pyongyang has expressed strong interest in one-on-one negotiations with Washington, while claiming it won't return to six-nation nuclear negotiations involving China, Japan, the DPRK, the Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States.
The United States says it can talk bilaterally with the DPRK, but only within the six-nation framework.
The DPRK has rapidly escalated tensions this year. It conducted a long-range rocket launch, quit six-nation talks on ending its nuclear program, restarted its nuclear facilities, carried out its second-ever nuclear test and test-fired a series of ballistic missiles.
As a way to pressure the DPRK to return to the negotiating table, Washington has been seeking international support for strict enforcement of a UN sanctions resolution adopted to punish the DPRK for its May 25 nuclear test.