Though Clinton's visit was unusual, he wasn't the first U.S. envoy dispatched to Pyongyang to secure the release of Americans. (Clinton was there at the behest of the jailed reporters' families and not on behalf of the U.S. government.) In the 1990s, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, then a congressman, went twice on similar missions: in 1994 to arrange the freedom of a U.S. pilot whose helicopter strayed into North Korean airspace and again two years later to fetch an American detained for three months on spying charges
Richardson spoke with CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric tonight.
Couric: Governor, I understand you talked with Lisa Ling, Laura Ling's sister, this afternoon. Can you tell us briefly about that conversation?
Richardson: Yes, I did talk to Lisa. She was ecstatic that the two women were coming home, one of them her sister, because they have been – five months: this was the longest captivity of an American by the North Koreans. There was a lot of mental anguish. There was concern that the two women were going to go to a forced labor camp. But it seems that the North Koreans were treating them well. They were in a guest house. They allowed access – phone calls – to the families. They also allowed the Swedish ambassador to visit. But the families are ecstatic.
It's like a long nightmare is over. I've been in touch with them continuously for the last five months and it's finally going to end and hopefully the reunion will happen very, very soon.
Couric: And, governor, why do you think Kim Jong Il returned these two journalists at this moment in time?
Richardson: Because first of all I think he is right now domestically trying to get support. He has right now a succession issue in North Korea, trying to decide which one of his sons takes over. And getting President Clinton to come – which was a goal of his for many years when President Clinton was president –
is something that he wanted badly and he felt that in order to get the two journalists out, it was going to take a major American figure as an envoy to get the two women released. This is why it's taken so long.
The Obama administration has, in my judgment, very effectively tried to negotiate the release. And then giving it to somebody like President Clinton outside the government who has enormous prestige. Kim Jong Il gets a lot of juice out of this because of the stature of President Clinton. But we get the two women back, and there's a lessening of tensions and possibly the two leaders discuss maybe ways that we can start talking to each other. Not negotiating on nuclear issues, but talking to each other because the relationship has been frozen. Frozen the worst that I've ever seen for the past few months.
Couric: So what does this mean? Will this unfreeze relationships or the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea? Does this provide an opening for the Obama administration?
Richardson: It provides an opening on both sides. The problem has been North Korea not wanting to talk to anybody and so what it is, is a cooling of relations, simply talking both of... both countries talking to each other without necessarily negotiating is the next step.