The negotiations that led to former President Bill Clinton's secret mission to North Korea began when two U.S. journalists were seized by the isolated Stalinist state, and were spurred on by the administration's hope that they might lead to a resumption of gridlocked disarmament talks, according to people close to the process.
The goal was a specific deal: If the United States showed respect by dispatching a high-level emissary to Pyongyang, the North would release journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested along the border with China on March 17.
"This has been an orchestrated diplomatic process, carefully calibrated in both capitals," said a person who has been close to the exchanges since they began. He asked for anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.
The mission headed for a successful conclusion today, as the two women joined the former president in a flight back to the United States.
A large number of respected figures volunteered to be the envoy, including Clinton; former Vice President Al Gore, who is co-founder of the media company that employs the two women; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry, D-Mass.; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; and former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald P. Gregg.
But it became clear that Clinton was the best choice. He presided over a long thaw in relations between the U.S. and North Korea as president in the 1990s and was one of the most important American visitors to the North since his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, traveled there in 2000.
Clinton was eager for the role. He had been urged to take on the mission in May, when he met in Seoul with Kim Dae Jung, the former South Korean president who had worked with Clinton while both were in office to carry out a "sunshine policy" with the North.
"He was a perfect choice, and a safe choice," said Charles L. Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea. "He'd handled tough North Korea issues before, and he wasn't going to go off and do something that the secretary of State wouldn't like." Although Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made repeated public appeals for the women's release, the negotiations were handled primarily - like much of the Obama administration's foreign policy - by senior White House aides. They included retired Gen. James L. Jones, the national security advisor; Thomas E. Donilon, one of Jones' deputies; and Jeffrey Bader, the top National Security Council expert on the region.
Administration officials wanted to separate the mission as much as possible from politics, in hopes of preventing North Korea from forcing concessions in the 6-year-old nuclear disarmament talks.
Yet behind the scenes, White House officials kept tight control of the negotiations, said people close to the process. They wanted to be sure that Bill Clinton wouldn't depart for North Korea in a chartered jet unless there was a very good chance that the North Koreans would release the women.
Many Obama officials are skeptical that North Korea officials, who have repeatedly denounced the six-country disarmament talks, will return to the negotiating table. Yet some officials are hoping that the mission could provide the North with a face-saving way to move back toward negotiations.
Those might start, for example, with country-to-country talks between U.S. and North Korean officials, possibly followed later by international negotiations, in a new format if not in the current so-called six-party talks. North Korean officials have been eager for such one-on-one talks with the Americans, believing they would have a better advantage.
U.S. officials have publicly ruled out any new deal that would reward North Korea for finally doing what the United States and its allies have already paid them for doing, such as dismantling its aging Yongbyon nuclear reactor. But the United States and its partners might be willing to reward Pyongyang if it takes new steps toward disarmament, these sources said.
One of the important messages that the United States sent Pyongyang came July 10, when Hillary Clinton said in a televised public meeting at the State Department that the women and their families had expressed "great remorse" for entering North Korea. She asked Pyongyang to give an "amnesty" to the women.
North Korea sent a positive message back on July 27, when its state-run news agency said Pyongyang might be open to a resumption of dialogue.
Though North Korea's leadership is believed to be embroiled in an internal dispute about who will succeed Kim, the people close to the talks said it was clear that in these communications, Kim, known as "Dear Leader," was still making the key decisions.
A 1994 visit to Pyongyang by former President Jimmy Carter led to a period of cooperation between the two countries. But Korea specialists said that the success of the mission shouldn't lead to any unrealistic hopes about the chances for a real improvement in U.S.-North Korean relations, which have been in a downward spiral all year.