WASHINGTON -- A few weeks ago at a meeting in Thailand, relations between the United States and North Korea seemed to hit a new low. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that North Korea "has no friends left." North Korea responded by calling her "a schoolgirl."
On Tuesday, the secretary of State's husband, former president Bill Clinton, may have smoothed some of that friction with a surprise visit to the North Korean capital that resulted in the release of two American reporters held there nearly five months.
Received with great fanfare, Bill Clinton met and later dined with a grinning Kim Jong Il, who personally pardoned the journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee.
North Korea's decision to free the women, and the goodwill engendered by Clinton's visit, could help bring North Korea back to the bargaining table over its nuclear program, several foreign policy analysts said. The isolated and impoverished communist nation has defied U.S. and international demands that it give up its nuclear program.
"We are now out of the cycle of tit-for-tat escalation, and that's a positive development," said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear proliferation expert at the New America Foundation, a think tank.
Joel Wit, a former State Department official and visiting fellow at Johns Hopkins University's U.S.-Korea Institute, said the U.S. and North Korea can now "ease the way back into renewed negotiations. But the problems are still going be very difficult to deal with, and no one should kid themselves."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has consulted with the Obama administration about the two journalists, said on CNN, "I've never seen the tensions and the differences between our two countries so vast. … This is why I think Clinton's visit is good. It cools down the atmospherics."
However, a senior administration official said Tuesday that where relations go from here is "up to the North Koreans." The official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, said the North Koreans have two possible paths to consider. One is to continue their "provocative behavior" and race to become a nuclear power; the other is to implement irreversible steps toward denuclearization and a return to the six-party talks.
The former president's diplomatic coup provides a political boost to North Korea's ailing leader at a time Kim is seeking to hand off power to his youngest son, said Richardson, who helped free two Americans on his own private missions to North Korea. "He shows his people that he can deliver a former president to North Korea."
The problem, said Nicholas Szechenyi, an Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is that Clinton's visit plays into North Korea's desire to bypass the six-party nuclear talks with other Asian nations and encourages North Korea's tendency to demand attention from top American officials.
"They think that they can solve any problems with the U.S. as long as they receive a high-level envoy," he said. "It's like, 'Sure we'll talk to you; where is Bill Clinton?' "
Lewis said the effect of the visit won't be clear until the former president reports on how he was received. "I want to hear what Clinton has to say," he said. "That's the test."