As for nuclear talks, the administration said that's a separate issue. Hillary Clinton said in Kenya that the administration had been working hard on the release of the two journalists, but the issue of nuclear nonproliferation was always considered a "totally separate issue."
But officials say the topic likely came up.
"I'm sure President Clinton gave President Kim his views on denuclearization. And his views are well-known," a government official said. "In addition to discussing U.S. journalists ... he did press very hard on the positive things that could flow from the release of the South Korean detainees."
The short-term victory could have long term implications for the Obama administration's tense relationship with the elusive North Koreans.
"Bill Clinton's trip may result in sticking point to multilateral negotiations and bilateral negotiations," said ABC News Consultant and professor of political science at University of Georgia, Han Park.
Richardson said Clinton was right in taking the trip and his objective should be separate from other issues between the United States and North Korea.
"I don't believe it's a cave in," he told ABC News. "We get substantial benefits from a cooling of the relationship but we also get the two journalists back."
But some say North Korea could use the visit to flex its own muscles in the region.
"North Korea is going to use this for propaganda purposes," said former State Department official Peter Brookes. "The Americans -- the arch enemy -- are coming to North Korea to talk to our deal leader Kim Jong-Il."
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told Fox News he is concerned the negotiations could set a dangerous precedent.
"This is a classic case of rewarding bad behavior, the seizure of these two innocent Americans," he said. "Obviously all of us want to get them out, but we want it done in a way that doesn't increase the risk in the future for other Americans."
And the move also has implications for other detained Americans. On Friday, Iran detained three Americans who strayed into the country while hiking in a town on the Iraq-Iran border.
"Each situation has to be evaluated on its own merits," Wood said when asked today if the State Department fears Iran might also demand an envoy for the three Americans it has detained. "They all have their own peculiar circumstances. So I don't think... we can sit here and give you a cookie-cutter approach to how we deal with these various situations. We have to take them, as I said, on their own merits. I don't think there's any talk about a precedent here."
Ling and Lee were detained by North Korea in March for illegally entering the country. At the time, they were working on a story about human trafficking for Current TV along the Chinese-North Korean border. The two admitted crossing the border illegally and apologized.
But in June, Ling and Lee were found guilty of "hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry" and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor by North Korea's highest Central Court.
Many feared that the two would be used as bargaining chips by North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions remain undeterred despite tougher sanctions and stern rhetoric.
Ling's sister, National Geographic contributor Lisa Ling, expressed her concern to ABC in an interview with "Good Morning America" in June.