Sometime this spring, the North Korean captors began allowing the two American journalists to have periodic phone conversations with their families, and the relatives gave readouts of the calls to the U.S. government.
One of those calls was the genesis of former President Bill Clinton’s role as a go-between in the international drama, according to a detailed briefing a senior administration official provided to reporters on a conference call Tuesday night.
The U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, so the administration enlisted the Swedes, who do, to help get mail and medicine to the women, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who had been captured March 17.
At the administration’s request, Sweden pressed hard for the women’s safety and good treatment, according to the official. Through the Swedish ambassador and other channels, the U.S. repeatedly urged North Korea to agree to the quickest possible release of the journalists and to guarantee their well-being in the meantime.
The State Department had daily contact with the families, and briefed them weekly on efforts to win release. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the families in person in May.
In a mid-July phone call to their families from captivity, the two journalists passed along an astonishing offer: North Korea would be willing to grant amnesty and release them, if Bill Clinton would agree to come to Pyongyang as an envoy and seek their release.
Family members passed that on to the administration and to former Vice President Al Gore, the chairman and founder of Current TV, the cable and satellite channel that employs the women. The families and Gore asked the administration to assist in seeing if Clinton would agree to go — and if he did, whether such a trip would be successful in securing the women’s release.
National Security Adviser James Jones and his team did what officials described as lots of due diligence through a variety of channels, trying to make a judgment on whether it would work.
Gore, on behalf of the families, talked to Clinton about the possibility. Later, during the weekend of July 24-25, Jones spoke with the former president about his willingness to go.
Clinton indicated to Jones that he would be willing to undertake this mission as a private, humanitarian mission if there were a reasonable chance of getting women out.
“We tested [that] directly with the North Koreans repeatedly,” the official said. “We sought and received North Korea's agreement, in fact, that a visit by President Clinton would secure the release of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee. During the course of these discussions, it was insisted that the North Koreans acknowledge [that], as former President Clinton's visit was not any part of a negotiation, it was not in any way connected to the nuclear issue or other issues that we have [on] a government-to-government basis with” North Korea.
“The North Koreans confirmed to us directly that they accepted his visit in a private capacity that exclusively focused on the humanitarian purpose of releasing the two Americans,” the official continued. “On this basis, President Clinton proceeded to make the logistical arrangements to go to North Korea to … secure their release. … We in the administration, prior to President Clinton making the trip, consulted directly with allies to ensure that they understood what the trip was about and what it wasn't about. …
“In advance of the departure, we also conferred with China and Russia and our other partners in the six-party talks to make sure … that they fully understood what the trip was and what it wasn't; that they fully understood specifically the unofficial, humanitarian character of the trip.”
Administration officials briefed Clinton twice on the current state of play with North Korea. On Saturday, government officials and Korea experts sat down with him at the Clintons’ home in Washington. On Tuesday, he landed in Pyongyang.