Former President Bill Clinton, who paid a rare visit to North Korea this month, found leader Kim Jong Il "unexpectedly spry" after mounting concern about his health, The New York Times said Wednesday.
The newspaper, quoting anonymous officials, said Clinton found Kim to be alert during an hourlong meeting and a more than two-hour dinner, but neither side made overtures in a stand-off over the reclusive nation's nuclear drive.
Clinton visited Pyongyang on Aug. 4 to win the release of two U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been convicted of illegally entering the hard-line communist state.
Clinton briefed President Barack Obama about his trip on Tuesday. The White House released few details of the meeting, other than that Obama thanked Clinton for the mission.
Kim, 67, is believed to have had a stroke last year and has appeared frail in pictures, leading many experts to think the country is in a succession struggle that has caused it to take a series of provocative actions, including testing a nuclear bomb.
But Clinton found Kim to be "unexpectedly spry," and the North Korean strongman even invited the former president to keep chatting after dinner, the Times said.
Also easing speculation of a leadership crisis, Kim appeared with two key North Korean officials U.S. intelligence thought had been removed, including Kim Kye-Gwan, the envoy to now-collapsed six-way denuclearization talks, the report said.
The newspaper quoted officials saying that Clinton stayed focused on the mission to free the two women and engaged in only "chitchat" with Kim, not speaking at length about the nuclear row.
"We didn't hear things that altered our perception on the North Korean attitude," an anonymous official was quoted as saying.
Two North Korean diplomats were due to start two days of rare meetings Wednesday with New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Clinton, in another sign of a potential thaw.
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