Bill brings reporters home from N. Korea. Hillary demurs on nuke talks.

'Dear Leader' Kim got his photo op. But will he get his way on bilateral nuclear talks?

Danny Moloshok/Reuters
American journalists Laura Ling (top) and Euna Lee disembark from the plane that brought them back from North Korea, in Burbank, Calif. on Wednesday.

Former President Bill Clinton arrived in California this morning with Euna Lee and Laura Ling, two American journalists who had been held by the totalitarian government of North Korea since March.

The North Koreans alleged they had illegally entered the country and sentenced them to 12 years of hard labor, though it had kept them in a state guest house since. For the price of a photo-op with Clinton, a beaming Kim Jong-il, North Korea's self-styled "dear leader," let them go.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted at a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, that the release of the two was not connected in any way to North Korea's hopes for bilateral nuclear talks. The United States has consistently said any negotiations must be multilateral. "We have always considered that a totally separate issue from our efforts to reengage the North Koreans and have them return to the six-party talks and work for a commitment for the full, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," Clinton said.

In an interview on the Today show Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton downplayed the likelihood of a potential breakthrough in talks as a result of the trip, and explained how her husband came to be involved: North Korea specifically asked for Bill, saying it would "be the best way to assure" the women's release.

Nevertheless, President Clinton's successful intervention has touched off a flurry of media speculation that this moment could, somehow, lubricate a frozen nuclear discussion. Bloomberg News theorized that the event gave Kim "a moment in the global spotlight that may help open a path for a return to talks over North Korea’s illicit nuclear-arms program." The Korea Times, which is based in South Korea, reports that North Korea has sought to portray Clinton's visit as an official overture from the US; the White House insists that it was solely a humanitarian, private trip by Clinton.

North Korean media indicated he was a special envoy of President Barack Obama, saying that he ``courteously conveyed a verbal message of the U.S. president expressing profound thanks for this and reflecting views on ways of improving the relations between the two countries.''

The United States, however, denied the special envoy mission, with White House spokesman Robert Gibbs saying it was a ``solely private mission.''

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was among a pack of opinion writers saying the trip was a return to relevance for the former president.

Kim Jong-il’s bright smiles were not returned by Bill Clinton. It was strange to see the reclusive Kim so eager and the raffish Clinton so disciplined. Yet the grinning North Korean and stony-faced American were no doubt both savoring their moment of mutual relevance.... Bill had the additional schadenfreude spritz of knowing that he had usurped three men he’d had fraught relationships with — Bill Richardson, Jimmy Carter and Al Gore ... by getting the high-profile assignment to rescue the damsels in distress.
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