Behind the Scenes in the Deal With North Korea

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

ByABC News
August 4, 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.