Former President Bill Clinton is in the North Korean capital, in an apparent bid to secure the freedom of two journalists detained there for more than four months. Many South Korean scholars see the visit as a positive sign that has significance well beyond the fate of the two prisoners.
Video images of President Clinton being greeted in Pyongyang were beamed around the world Tuesday, just a few hours after his arrival aboard a private jet at about midday.
Mr. Clinton received a bouquet of flowers from a schoolgirl after shaking hands with senior North Korean officials on the airport tarmac. He was chauffeured away soon thereafter with no public statement.
The visit was kept under wraps until reports emerged just hours before his arrival. It follows months of speculation that Washington would send a special envoy to plea for the release of detained American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.
The two were seized by North Korean soldiers along the Chinese border in late March. The North sentenced them to 12 years of labor for illegally entering the country and committing what Pyongyang described as "grave, hostile acts" against the country.
Kim Sung-han is a North Korean studies professor at Korea University in Seoul. He says the young women's ordeal is likely to end soon.
He says there were probably a lot of closed door talks between the two countries. The fact that Mr. Clinton decided to make the visit, Kim says, means North Korea must have signaled its willingness to release the two women.
In addition to being a former U.S. president, Mr. Clinton is married to the current U.S. secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
Hong Hyun-ik, an analyst at the Sejong Institute, says he thinks the two women will be released "for sure."
Hong says North Korea has been waiting for an opportunity to release the women without losing face. Sending the former president, Hong says, gives North Korea the opening it needs.
Many experts here view it as almost certain Mr. Clinton will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, despite Mr. Kim's apparent decline in health. They say that opens the door for a thaw in strained relations. Kim Yong-hyun is a North Korea scholar at Seoul's Dongkuk University.
He says this visit is about much more than just freeing the detained journalists. He says it has the potential to open floodgates on the entire U.S. - North Korean relationship, including on tough issues such as North Korea's nuclear programs.
Still, Korea University's Professor Kim says there is only so much Mr. Clinton can accomplish as a private citizen. He points out that Mr. Clinton cannot act on behalf of the U.S. government. Instead, he says the ex-president will act as a messenger, conveying the North's positions very thoroughly to President Obama.