Obama treads fine line on North Korea

President Barack Obama walked a careful line in arranging the release of two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea, sending former President Bill Clinton but keeping his distance to deflect GOP criticism.

A congressional source briefed on Clinton’s negotiations told The Hill that the Obama administration asked Clinton to meet with Kim Jong-il after the North Korean leader rejected the administration’s offer to send former Vice President Al Gore.

John Podesta, who led Obama’s transition team and remains an informal adviser to the administration, accompanied Clinton on the surprise trip. Podesta served as Clinton’s White House chief of staff.

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Obama, who gave Republicans a significant talking point in the 2008 election by saying he would engage rogue nations diplomatically, took a gamble by sending a former U.S. president as envoy to North Korea so soon after it committed a series of belligerent actions, such as launching a multistage rocket in April, which drew international condemnation.

Last month, the North Korean government insulted Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as a “schoolgirl” and a “pensioner.”

But the risk paid off Tuesday afternoon when North Korean officials announced through the state-controlled media that they had pardoned journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor after being accused of entering the country illegally in March.

The release drew praise from some Republicans, or at least respectful silence during the day’s negotiations, while others were critical, saying negotiating with a hostile nation sends the wrong message.

Obama and his administration kept their distance from the developments Tuesday as reports surfaced of Clinton arriving in an unmarked plane in Pyongyang to negotiate the release of the two journalists.

Earlier in the day, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs characterized Clinton’s trip as a “private mission” and declined further comment.

“While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment. We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton’s mission,” Gibbs said in a statement.

But foreign policy experts expressed skepticism that Obama played the role of mere spectator to Clinton’s diplomatic foray. Experts said the notion that Clinton acted on his own is especially hard to believe in light of his marriage to Obama’s secretary of State.

“You don’t deploy somebody of that magnitude without an understanding of what’s going on,” said Robert Hunter, a senior adviser at RAND Corp. who served as NATO ambassador under Clinton. “Clinton didn’t show up in an airplane and just land; that’s not something you do.

“The former president wouldn’t go unless he had the backing of the president and there was a clear understanding that the journalists would be released,” Hunter said. “The risk of embarrassment is too great if he came back empty-handed.”

The secretive trip called to mind one taken 15 years ago by another former president, who traveled to Pyongyang when Clinton was in the White House. Former President Jimmy Carter reproached North Korea in 1994 for developing an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

While Carter was overseas, however, he departed from his narrow brief to offer North Korea various incentives to halt its weapons program, such as promising the U.S. would withhold imposing sanctions and would provide energy assistance in return for cooperation. Carter’s freelance diplomacy was controversial at the time but later credited for helping establish an agreement that capped North Korea’s nuclear development for half a decade.

It is unclear whether Clinton has taken this face-time with North Korea’s reclusive leader to broach the broader subject of arms control or relations with South Korea and Japan.

“The Clinton trip is unfolding; I can’t evaluate its broader significance yet,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who specializes in North Korea and national security policy.

O’Hanlon said that Clinton, as Carter did in 1994, could have departed from his narrow mission of discussing the journalists’ release once he had sat down with Kim.

O’Hanlon said that Clinton’s meeting could offer the administration an opportunity to feel out the enigmatic North Korean leader or float a few diplomatic trial balloons without doing so officially.

“There is complete deniability,” said O’Hanlon in reference to the Obama administration, adding that Tuesday’s meeting could open the way for future diplomatic outreach. “This could pave the way for a different trip down the road.”

John Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador under President George W. Bush, labeled the White House calling it a private trip “disingenuous.”

“There’s no such thing as a private trip when you’re the former president and your wife is the secretary of State,” Bolton told The Hill.

The purported mission of Clinton’s trip, to free the two young journalists, softened Republican criticism on Capitol Hill.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who as the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, blasted Obama on the campaign trail for stating his willingness to meet with rogue leaders, declined to criticize the president Tuesday.

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“All I know is that President Clinton is trying to secure the release of two American citizens and I hope his mission succeeds,” McCain said before news broke that the journalists had received pardons.

But other Republicans disagreed with the decision to engage North Korea diplomatically while the nation aggressively pursues a nuclear arsenal and threatens neighboring countries.

“I think it sends the wrong message to continue to talk to them and treat them as a responsible country when they haven’t acted like a responsible country,” Sen. Kit Bond (Mo.), the senior Republican on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said before the release of the two journalists was announced.

Bond said sending Clinton was a “halfway” compromise to Obama sitting down with Kim himself, describing Clinton’s trip as “half a bad step instead of a full bad step.”

Bridget Johnson contributed to this article.