University of Georgia professor Han Park set the stage for North Korea's release of two U.S. journalists last month. But only a visit from a former U.S. president could have swayed the country's dictator to free the two women, Park told a group of more than 200 people Wednesday.
A North Korean tribunal sentenced the two women to 12 years of hard labor after they were convicted of illegally entering the country and committing hostile acts - filming refugees from North Korea in neighboring China.
But Laura Ling and Euna Lee flew back home to the United States with former President Bill Clinton on Aug. 4, nearly five months after their arrest, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il pardoned them.
Only a visit from the former president could have persuaded Kim to release the two, Park said - and the UGA professor said as much to officials in the U.S. State Department after he visited the country a month before Clinton's visit, he said.
Park had visited the country in March, seven days after the women were arrested, officially to arrange a meeting in Athens later this year of South Korean, North Korean and U.S. officials.
But he also checked on the women's condition, and advised North Korean leaders that the women should be released. If they were not, a rising tide of anti-North Korean sentiment in the United States could make it hard for President Obama to do anything to improve relations between the nations.
But Park had another agenda when he went again to Pyongyang on July 4, he told a crowd made up mainly of UGA students. The lecture was sponsored by UGA's Dean Rusk Center and the School of Public and International Affairs.
"My job was to find out what it might take for the North Korean government to release them," Park said.
Park went as a private citizen, not as a representative of the U.S. government or any other government.
But he stayed in touch with friends in the State Department, he said.
When Park returned to the United States after four days, he told both his State Department friends that the women were being treated more like VIPs than common criminals, and that they might go free if the United States would send Clinton to meet with Kim, acknowledging the women had broken the country's laws and apologizing.
"They wanted a lot more," Park said. But the professor told the North Koreans that if they demanded material concessions, the world would view them as something like kidnappers, holding the women for ransom.
Park proposed to the North Koreans other high-profile U.S. leaders who might visit, but found that only one would do - Clinton, who had considered meeting with Kim in 2000, Clinton's last year in office.
"We're sitting on a ticking time bomb," Park also told his State Department friends. Once the women actually went to a labor camp, they might never get out.
A UGA professor of public and international affairs and director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues, Park has visited North Korea nearly 50 times - often in times of crisis as an unofficial mediator.
Such peaceful resolutions of international conflicts are more important than ever before, Park told his young audience.
The stakes are so high now because of the wide availability of weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear bombs, and the development of mechanical war, such as bombing drones, which has made killing impersonal.
"If we fail (in peacefully mediating conflicts), we may be doomed," Park said.