Behind the Scenes in the Deal With North Korea

The former president's trip did what officials could not.

August 04, 2009, 6:45 PM

August 5, 2009— -- All the diplomacy of the Obama administration failed to move North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to release two American journalists. In the end, it was the reclusive tyrant's desire to be seen with former president Bill Clinton that created a deal to let them go free.

The first thaw in North Korea's hard line came in the spring when the jailed American reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling were allowed to call home once a week.

The big break came just two weeks ago during a phone call home when the women said the North Koreans would let them go if Bill Clinton would come to North Korea as an envoy.

"The North Koreans made it clear they wanted a former president, they wanted Clinton," ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos reported on Tuesday's "World News with Charles Gibson."

Clinton's former vice president Al Gore, who owns CurrentTV that Lee and Ling were working for at the time of their capture, approached his ex-boss to see if he would be willing to undertake what had been up to that point mission impossible - get the women home.

National security teams worked to determine whether the famously fickle North Korean regime could be relied upon to keep their word, and on Friday, July 24 and the next day a top national security adviser discussed the assignment with Clinton.

Ground rules were agreed upon at the White House and with North Korea: Clinton's trip would be described as a private mission and there would not be any negotiations about North Korea's nuclear weapons.

"We made clear in every communication we had with the North Koreans, and President Clinton made clear in all his conversations, that this was a purely private humanitarian mission, being solely for the release of the two journalists. And that in fact was completely separate from issues between North Korea and the international community. That it would remain crystal clear the separation here," a senior national security offical told ABC News.

Stephanopoulos said Clinton was given "strict instructions" to discuss only the detained journalists.

The administration also consulted with U.S. allies, including members of the Six Party talks that have been negotiating with North Korea on its nuclear arsenal so they would know "what the trip was about, and what it wasn't about."

Before heading to Pyongyang, Clinton got one last briefing on Saturday from the National Security team. He arrived in North Korea on Tuesday.

Clinton and his team had a 75 minute meeting with Kim Jong Il as well as a two hour dinner. Clinton was photographed talking with Kim as well as sitting for a formal portrait with him. The picture of Kim and the former U.S. president flashed around the world.

"I'm sure President Clinton gave President Kim his views on de-nuclearization. And his views are well-known," the 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."

Gore has been "directly, vigorously and constantly involved in trying to seek the release of his colleagues. He had at least one conversation with President Obama," the official said.

Besides bringing back the tandem of Clinton and Gore, it involved Clinton's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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.

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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