Behind the Scenes in the Deal With North Korea

The story that Bill Clinton was en route to North Korea broke as the secretary of state arrived in Kenya hoping to highlight her commitment to Africa.

Video of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praising the humanitarian effort in North Korea.

Instead, the spotlight was on her husband on a different continent and Hillary Clinton, who had been calling for the release of Ling and Lee for months, was left trying to catch some of the reflected glow from that spotlight.

The secretary told reporters in Nairobi today that she was "very pleased to get the news that my husband's plane had taken off with the two young women on board."

"I had a very brief conversation with my husband and we didn't get into the details of some of the questions you are asking. There will be time to talk about those details later," she said.

The secretary answered few questions about the arrangement to free Ling and Lee, but did say that rumors her husband apologized to the North Koreans were "not true."

In recent weeks Hillary Clinton had made rhetorical concessions and appeared to apologize to North Korea. She even wrote the North Koreans a secret letter.

She was rewarded by having North Korea deride her as a "schoolgirl" and likening her to an old woman "shopping."

Why was Bill Clinton's diplomacy able to succeed when she could not?

In large part because Bill Clinton did what no Obama administration official could: go to North Korea with hat in hand to retrieve the journalists. Such a visit by a senior administration official would perhaps give up too much leverage when issues like Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program remain on the table.

The former president possessed a rare combination of qualifications that North Korea wanted to see before releasing the two Americans: gravitas and connection to the Obama administration.

Clinton's mission provided the reclusive and isolated North Korean regime with the respect and legitimacy it wants. The pictures of leader Kim and Clinton that aired on state television say it all. The North Korean leader flashes a satisfied grin while Clinton's face is all business.

Critics say Bill Clinton's visit only rewarded North Korea for its recent provocative actions.

"I think it is quite a concession to North Koreans. North Korea craves affirmation, especially a high profile former president of the united states," said Peter Brookes of The Heritage Foundation. "Some people would say this is actually rewarding bad behavior."

Using a special representative, something Secretary Clinton said in June was a possibility, also allowed for the separation of the journalist and nuclear issues. The United States wants North Korea to return to multilateral talks on its nuclear program and not make it an issue between only the U.S. and North Korea.

ABC News' Dana Hughes in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report

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