Behind Bill Clinton’s rescue mission (UPDATED)

Behind Bill Clinton’s rescue mission (UPDATED)

As the office of former U.S. President Bill Clinton announced that the two American journalists whose release he gained today from North Korea were allowed to fly out with him and were en route to Los Angeles, Washington Korea hands said the arrangement for their release was likely worked out in advance through the "New York" channel.

"It was a done deal before he stepped on the plane, otherwise he would never have gone there," a Hill foreign-policy staffer said, after news reports Tuesday that North Korea’s Kim Jong Il had pardoned the women.

Clinton’s spokesman Matt McKenna issued a statement Tuesday night saying, "President Clinton has safely left North Korea with Laura Ling and Euna Lee. They are en route to Los Angeles where Laura and Euna will be reunited with their families." Clinton’s chartered aircraft from Pyongyang was due to arrive in Los Angeles early Wednesday morning, and was expected to be met by the journalists’ families.  

The North Koreans made it clear "that they wanted a high level political figure" to come negotiate the journalists’ release, said Korea specialist and former Clinton-era counselor of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Donald Gross. "They have been insisting for a long time on a high-level [envoy]," he said. "It gives them a lot of face and … prestige. It demonstrates a high-level commitment by the U.S. of working with North Korea. They wanted someone who could meet Kim Jong Il at his level."

There had been several contenders for the job, said Chris Nelson a veteran Washington foreign-policy watcher who covers Asia policy extensively in his daily newsletter, the Nelson Report. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "has been trying to send [U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy] Stephen Bosworth since March," Nelson said. "I know Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) has been trying to go. [Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations] Bill Richardson has been trying to go. They have been talking with and through the NY connection. … So there was a lot of back and forth using the New York channel. [Senate Foreign Relations Committee Asia staffer] Frank Jannuzi was involved in a lot of this stuff on Kerry’s behalf. So this goes back. They wanted to go and bring those girls home."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "always wanted to send Al Gore," Nelson continued, noting the two detained journalists worked for Current TV, a media company connected to the former vice president. "And apparently that was OK with Hillary and Obama, [whose wish was to] just get this out of the goddamned way."

"But here’s where it gets interesting," Nelson continued. "I do not know how it was delivered. But 10 days ago, North Korea sent the U.S. a list of acceptable names. And I am very authoritatively told that not on that list was Al Gore. And Bill was on the list."

"This was the crystallizing event," Nelson said. "After they got the list, the White House decision at the end of last week was to send Bill."

Some reports have suggested Pyongyang’s short list of acceptable envoys was conveyed by the North Koreans to the detained journalists who communicated it back to their families.

Secretary Clinton "was quoted a couple days ago saying there are many ways of communicating with North Korea," said Gross. "Their normal channel is the New York channel"  — the North Korean mission to the U.N. in New York. "Normally, the Korea desk at State is in regular contact with that office."

What to make of the fact that just two weeks ago, North Korea was publicly insulting Secretary Clinton after her tough remarks on North Korea in Thailand late last month?

"It’s a classic double-track strategy for North Korea," Gross said. "A week ago Monday, there was a report that North Korea wanted to talk to the U.S. And the U.S. said it would be happy to have bilateral talks in the context of the multilateral [Six-Party] talks, which has been the U.S. position."

Both Nelson and Gross noted that accompanying Clinton to Pyongyang today was David Straub, a retired U.S. diplomat who served as head of the Korea desk and head of the political section at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, and is now the associate director of the Korea Studies Center at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. "My supposition is that, since this was a private visit, they couldn’t send a current U.S. diplomat," so they brought Straub, Gross said.

Also among Clinton’s delegation were former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, who headed the Obama-Biden transition team and currently runs the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank.

"Jeff Bader has a very firm grip" on this mission through Podesta and Straub, said Nelson, referring to the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia. The White House attempted to portray the trip today as a private mission, and adamantly denied North Korean press reports that Clinton had conveyed a message from the Obama administration.

Any significance for U.S.-North Korean relations going forward? "One thing to watch in the current situation is that Clinton and Kim Jong Il agreed today that they could settle issues through negotiations," Gross said. "Hopefully this will lead to North Korea coming back to the Six-Party talks," which Pyongyang has rejected in recent weeks.

"I am hopeful this may be a thaw in the overall relationship and we can get back to progress on the nukes stuff," the Hill foreign-policy hand said.