The real story behind President Clinton's surprise mission to North Korea dates back to the 1990s.

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The White House today described Bill Clinton's surprise visit to North Korea as a "solely private" effort to secure the release of two captive American journalists. But the real story behind the trip very likely goes back to the public diplomacy that then-president Clinton was conducting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il nearly 10 years ago, during Clinton's final months in office.

At the time, the United States and North were tantalizingly close to a deal to stop all North Korean missile exports, and for Pyongyang to cease development, testing, and deployment of missiles. In exchange, the North would get full diplomatic recognition, billions in aid from Washington and Tokyo, and, above all, a visit to Pyongyang by the U.S. president. That's according to an account of the talks given to me by Wendy Sherman, a former senior aide to secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and other officials.

Sherman and other North Korea specialists say Kim was plainly eager for the Clinton visit, which would have given his regime the stamp of legitimacy and a guarantee of security the North Korean leader has long sought. At a secret meeting in Washington in October 2000 between Clinton and Marshal Cho Myong Rok, who was second only to Kim in North Korea, Cho had delivered Kim's personal invitation to the president to visit Pyongyang. Albright's historic visit to Pyongyang a week later was an attempt to secure a deal that would justify such a presidential visit. While in North Korea, the secretary appeared with Kim at a stadium spectacle, during which a mass of performers flipped colored placards that together depicted Kim's Taepodong I missile taking off for its first test in 1998. According to Sherman, who was there, an ebullient and apparently hopeful Kim turned to Albright and said, "That was the first launch of that missile, and it will be the last."

The moment marked a high point for diplomacy between the two countries, a culmination of spotty talks that had been going on since 1994, when Clinton came to an Agreed Framework deal with Pyongyang. Under that 1994 pact, Clinton obtained a commitment to freeze plutonium reprocessing in exchange for aid and a civilian nuclear plant. Notably, that agreement began with a visit by former president Jimmy Carter, which was also described by the White House at the time as private.

But the Clinton-Kim missile talks foundered over Pyongyang's demands that smaller Nodong missiles, used as a deterrent against South Korea and Japan, be fully exempted from the missile moratorium, and Clinton grew otherwise occupied with a final effort at Mideast peace (which also failed). ...

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