WASHINGTON - Bill Clinton, whose hopes for a peacemaking trip to North Korea fizzled while he was still president, got a second chance on Tuesday and negotiated the release of two American journalists in Pyongyang.
Clinton had hoped to make a triumphant trip to North Korea shortly before leaving office in 2001 after his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was said to have been close to an agreement over North Korea's missiles.
As part of that unfolding agreement, Clinton was to have traveled to the reclusive Stalinist state, giving North Korean leader Kim Jong-il the kind of high-level American attention he had always craved.
But the deal fell through, Clinton turned over power to George W. Bush and the diplomatic negotiations were quickly halted by Bush officials who felt the Clinton administration was going soft on North Korea.
I know from what he's written and what he's said, that he felt a pang of regret that it was not at that point prudent or appropriate for him to go, said Doug Schoen, who worked in the Clinton White House.
I can't think of anybody better for the Obama administration to call on to try to help resolve a thorny issue involving the two journalists and jump-start talks on the nuclear issue.
Questions emerged, however, as to whether Clinton was rewarding North Korea for bad behavior.
The North Korean news agency, KCNA, said Clinton had candid and in-depth discussions on the pending issues between the DPRK and the U.S. in a sincere atmosphere and reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement of them.
The United States has been a part of six-party talks in dealing with North Korea, while Pyongyang has longed to have negotiations directly with Washington.
Critics were dubious about Clinton's mission.
I think it's not a good idea, said John Bolton, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush presidency. I think it expands the risk that North Korea and others will draw the conclusion that they can extract political concessions for holding Americans hostage.
Clinton's trip dominated television news and headlines in the United States and, by happenstance, overshadowed a seven-nation tour of Africa by his wife, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Pyongyang visit amounted to a sort of reunion of the old Clinton team. Clinton was acting on behalf of his former vice president, Al Gore, because the two journalists -- Laura Ling and Euna Lee --work for a Gore media venture, Current TV.
And shown prominently in the photos from North Korea was John Podesta, who was Clinton's White House chief of staff and headed Obama's transition to the White House last winter.
Clinton followed in the footsteps of other unofficial U.S. envoys from years past such as civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson in trying to unwind a brewing international problem without the official imprimatur of the White House.
The assumption was that Clinton had been fully briefed on developments in North Korea given his close ties to the Obama administration.
I think one of the very positive roles that President Clinton can play in North Korea and elsewhere is that he is extremely popular in many parts of the world. He can play a role of kind of tamping down tensions -- almost playing good cop, bad cop if you will, said Jonathan Morgenstein, a national security expert at the Third Way think tank in Washington.
He's a good negotiator, a good talker, said a former Clinton staffer. People enjoy dealing with him because he's very personable. He does make you feel like you're the only person in the room.
Clinton may provide a counter-balance to comments by his wife, who angered the North Koreans in July by saying the North's testing of a nuclear device and firing of ballistic missiles reminded her of small children and unruly teenagers and people who are demanding attention.
(Editing by Chris Wilson)