Aug. 6, 2009— -- Laura Ling and Euna Lee's homecoming in the United States after nearly five months in captivity was a moving sight.
But beyond the two journalists' emotional reunion with their families, some conservative critics are raising questions about the foreign policy ramifications of former President Bill Clinton's visit to the elusive country.
At an event in New York today, the former president divulged little about the trip, except to say that he was "asked to do a job" and was "honored to do it," and that the flight home with Ling and Lee was "deeply emotional." Clinton repeatedly stressed he was not a policy maker anymore, and he declined to reveal the substance of his conversation with Kim Jong-Il.
He said he had a brief conversation with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but has not fully de-briefed them or the National Security Council.
The White House today tried to separate Clinton's "humanitarian mission" with the nuclear non-proliferation issue and argued that U.S. policy toward North Korea remains unchanged.
"I think our policy to ensure that U.N. Security Council regulations are... implemented is no different today than it was Monday, before President Clinton left," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today. "I don't read a lot of precedent into it."
Gibbs added that it is up to the North Koreans to take steps to improve its relationship with the United States and carry through on nuclear arms agreements.
"While at the same time we will continue to take the steps necessary to enforce Security Council resolutions to ensure weapons of mass destruction are not spread by the North Koreans," he said.
While the former president's trip may have strictly been a "humanitarian mission," officials say Hillary Clinton and others were closely involved in the planning process. A senior official said Tuesday that since the women's arrest, the administration has spoken with the families regularly about the work they were doing to secure their release.
"There'll be plenty of time to get into the details of all that transpired. But clearly, she had a role in this," State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood said Wednesday when asked about Secretary Clinton and the administration's involvement. "There were lots of discussions. The State Department was very involved."
And it was President Obama, along with former Vice President Al Gore, who asked President Clinton if he would be willing to undertake the mission.
"President Obama made a request to see if the former president would be willing to undertake this... private humanitarian mission," Wood said.
And even though the White House has said repeatedly that nuclear nonproliferation talks are a separate issue and that Clinton's visit was solely to get the two journalists released, the nuclear issue did come up in the meeting between Clinton and North Korea's leadership. A source briefed on their meeting told ABC News that when the subject of North Korea's nuclear program was raised -- almost certainly by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il -- Clinton conveyed the same message he tried to express throughout the '90s, that North Korea's nuclear program will not make that country safer and more secure, but rather will continue to lead to further international isolation.
Clinton forcefully told the North Korean leader, the source said, that he needs to free the Japanese abductees and South Korean detainees currently held captive by that rogue regime.
But some Republicans are questioning whether the United States caved in by sending such a high-profile emissary to the country that has defied United Nations mandates in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
"I don't think there is any doubt that this is a propaganda success for Kim Jong-Il and the North Korean regime, and enhances their prestige," said former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who added that he was happy that Ling and Lee were safe at home.
Others wonder what it means for other Americans detained around the world, namely the three Americans who are being held by Iran for straying into the country, and Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier being held by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"Iran and other autocracies are presumably closely watching the scenario in North Korea. With three American hikers freshly in Tehran's captivity, will Clinton be packing his bags again for another act of obeisance? And, looking ahead, what American hostages will not be sufficiently important to merit the presidential treatment?" asked John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations. "Indeed, the release of the two reporters -- welcome news -- doesn't mitigate the future risks entailed."
Did the U.S. Cave In to North Korean Demands?
Those conservative concerns have been amplified on the airwaves.
"Do you ever wonder why Democrat presidents have to send ex-Democrat presidents to resolve problems like this?" conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh questioned. "And the Norks are saying that Clinton apologized in order to get the two journalists released."
Secretary of State Clinton denied that her husband apologized at all, contradicting reports by North Korea's central news agency. The White House also has reiterated that reports by the country's state media that the former president carried a message to Kim Jong-Il "were not true."
"What North Korea did in holding these two reporters was an act of terrorism," Bolton told Fox News. "And I think we're being used as pawns in a larger struggle."
But others say this was not about opening relationship with North Korea, but rather simply about bringing back the two detained journalists.
"If you are an American that you find yourself not of your own doing being held in another country and it's not a terrorist and it's not a hostage situation, do you want your government to say, 'No, we are not going to send somebody simply because it looks as though we are losing face?'" said Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, D.C., and former adviser on North Korea for presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. "I am not so concerned with this precedent."
Pritchard told ABC News there are signs North Korea is ready to come to the table to talk about its nuclear program.
"I think that there is a signal here that the North Koreans don't like the direction for which the relationship is heading. And they can't control it," he said. "They need a very face-saving way to change this dynamic. I think they are signaling that they want to do something differently. I would recommend that we take this opportunity. Let's see if this message comes out from the North Koreans."
Officials say they are not worried about setting a precedent with another country, such as Iran, and each situation has to be evaluated on its own merits.
Obama administration officials say U.S. policy toward North Korea remains the same as it was a week ago. Despite suggestions from observers that this week's gestures from Pyongyang may indicate a desire by Kim Jong-Il to re-set the U.S.-North Korean relationship, the White House says future North Korean actions relating to its nuclear program are the only true way to judge whether that's true.