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Zakaria: Clinton says husband's trip has precedents

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  • Zakaria: Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea was unorthodox but successful
  • He says Hillary Clinton says getting two journalists back was important
  • Zakaria: That issue now won't block progress on N. Korea nuclear program
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Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN on Sundays at 1 and 5 p.m. ET

Fareed Zakaria says the administration has been working hard to stop North Korea's nuclear program.

Fareed Zakaria says the administration has been working hard to stop North Korea's nuclear program.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Laura Ling and Euna Lee are back in the United States after President Bill Clinton flew to North Korea to negotiate the journalists' release.

Bill Clinton agreed to go on the mission but made it very clear that this was purely a humanitarian effort. Clinton also wanted to make sure there was a high likelihood of success if he went.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Wednesday that "we did our homework ... to make sure that if President Clinton did take this trip, that we would be able to ... win the freedom for these two."

Kelly said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also had a role in the mission, adding that "The State Department was very involved."

Administration officials also said it was always made clear that this would be a humanitarian mission. "It wasn't in any way about our disagreements with the DPRK with respect to its conduct, or with respect to our intention to vigorously enforce resolutions and to vigorously seek the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," one official said.

CNN spoke to author and foreign affairs analyst Fareed Zakaria about Bill Clinton's trip and Hillary Clinton's diplomacy. Video Watch Clinton talk to Zakaria about her husband's trip to North Korea »

CNN: What do you think of President Clinton's trip to North Korea?

Secretary Hillary Clinton on Fareed Zakaria GPS
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks about the global dangers that keep her up at night. Fareed Zakaria GPS
1 p.m. ET Sunday

Fareed Zakaria: It was unorthodox, but successful. I was in Kenya this past week and asked Secretary Clinton about her husband's trip and any concerns she had with working with the North Korean regime. She stressed the humanitarian angle as the motivating factor. "These two young women...were really a humanitarian plea that I felt strongly we needed to answer. They needed to be brought home and reunited with their families."

However, it was interesting to note that her secretary of state role was not far removed from the compassion she felt as a mother. She continued that it was also important that the U.S. government "resolve [the issue] so it wasn't hanging over our head as we worked to try to move back into a process to lead to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

CNN: Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton has been a vociferous critic of the action. What do you think?

Zakaria: You are right. Ambassador Bolton wrote "Despite decades of bipartisan U.S. rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages, it seems that the Obama administration not only chose to negotiate, but to send a former president to do so."

However, Secretary Clinton said this was nothing new, there were precedents. Former presidents as well as sitting members of Congress had worked with countries she describes as "beyond the pale of the rule of law [that] hold people and subject them to long prison terms that are absolutely unfair and unwarranted."

There is also some feeling that Ambassador Bolton is attempting to politicize a positive outcome. That attitude, she jokingly quipped, finds the negative in every situation, "If President Obama walked on water, you'd say he couldn't swim."

CNN: But doesn't John Bolton have a valid point? There are prisoners in other places. What about in Iran where there are still political prisoners being held?

Zakaria: As you may know, this is an issue of importance to me. A colleague of mine, Maziar Bahari, is being held in Iran. He currently is being put through a kind of Stalinist show trial. (We highlight the issue on our show this week.)

I asked Secretary Clinton about these trials in Iran. "It is a sign of weakness. It demonstrates, I think, better than any of us could ever say, that this Iranian leadership is afraid of their own people, and afraid of the truth and the facts coming out." She continued that they have been following Maziar's situation and since he is a Canadian citizen offered any assistance the Canadian government feels is appropriate.

CNN: How do things stand in Iran?

Zakaria: Well, President Ahmadinejad was sworn into office this week. There are cracks among the political elite, but it appears that the ruling powers are using all the tools at their disposal to stay in power. I have stated before in this forum that repressive regimes can last a long time if they are willing to use force, impose a strict crackdown on protests and arrest the leaders of the opposition. It seems this regime is willing to do that.

CNN: Will the United States negotiate with the regime and President Ahmadinejad?

Zakaria: I asked Secretary Clinton her thoughts on this issue. She said they were aware they needed to wait until after the elections before they could effectively move forward on negotiations. It seems they are formulating their policy on dealing with Iran directly, but at the same time working other angles to make sure Iran does not become a nuclear power.

She said, "The president has also said, look, we need to take stock of this in September. If there is a response, it needs to be on a fast track. We're not going to keep the window open forever.

"But we're not just sitting here waiting for somebody in Iran to say, well, let's talk. We're working with our allies to make the case that we need to have prepared a very robust set of sanctions that we can get the international community to sign off on, the way we did with North Korea."

CNN: Well that brings us back to North Korea. Will President Clinton's help soften our dealings on the nuclear issue?

Zakaria: Only time will tell. As Secretary Clinton noted, at least we won't have the additional concern of Laura Ling and Euna Lee in the discussions.

The administration has been working diligently on the nuclear issue. The secretary explained, "We reached out to the North Koreans and made it very clear that we wanted to create that kind of engagement. And they not only rejected it, but they began to take these provocative actions, which resulted in the entire international community, most importantly China, saying, wait, you can't do this. I think they were surprised by that.

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"I think the consequences of the Security Council resolution 1874 and the sanctions that have been imposed, the most onerous that we have ever had, were quite, you know, eye-opening for them. So, we're hoping that we can get back to a process that they will participate in with the understanding that, yes, we demand that they denuclearize, but we also are not coming empty-handed. If it is full and verifiable, the international community will be responsive."

Secretary Clinton also discusses China, Israel and the role of the United States in the world on our show this week.

All About North KoreaHillary ClintonIran

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