In early 2009, a pair of U.S. television journalists got picked up by North Korean police near the border with China. Never ones to let a potential hostage crisis go to waste, North Korean officials in June sentenced the still-photogenic young women to hard labor. Within days, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got an email.
It was an offer of help from a high-profile American who'd been to North Korea before as part of an unofficial effort to resolve a crisis (this one the 1994 showdown over North Korea's nuke program, which deflated into years of hapless American diplomacy that ultimately left Pyongyang with a stockpile of atomic weapons).
"Hillary: As I explained to you on the phone, I don't think it is appropriate to tell them (the North Koreans) that I will come only if they agree in advance to release the women. Your response was, in effect, 'They have already agreed.' Is this correct? If not, I will go, by commercial airline if necessary, representing The Carter Center, and try to induce them to approve the release. JC:" emailed someone with the first name "Jimmy" and the last initial "C," whose last name has been redacted from the email (below) by the State Department, but who is almost certainly former President Jimmy Carter.
Secretary of State Clinton's initial response was not to send a warm thank you back to Carter, or even offer him some frequent flyer miles for the trip, but rather to look for someone else to consult (Or dump the problem on?)
She asked her assistant for the emails of White House Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Kurt Campbell, State Department Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
If Secretary Clinton ended up emailing these officials, we didn't see that string in the declassified Hillary email files (are those resulting emails classified? or did Hillary pick up the phone instead?). But we do know one thing for sure: When the time came to send someone to Pyongyang to retrieve the journalists and boost his humanitarian cred, it was a former president, but not the one who emailed for the job.
In early August 2009, the world learned that Bill Clinton had jetted to North Korea (not on commercial, bur rather the private jet of one of his billionaire supporters). According to media reports, other emissaries had been discussed (former Veep Al Gore was cited in one report on a list that did not include Carter). But Pyongyang apparently held out for a bigger title.
After Bill offered some modest apologies and spent face time with then North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, the journalists received a special pardon and the former President whisked them home.
President Obama was quick to thank Clinton (and Gore): "I want to thank President Bill Clinton – I had a chance to talk to him – for the extraordinary humanitarian effort that resulted in the release of the two journalists."
[To be sure, Bill Clinton deserves praise, since flying across the world to a dangerous country, treating with a homicidal maniac dictator and riding back with two exhausted journalists long separated from American bath products was no doubt more risky and less enjoyable than other trips he's taken on that private jet. That said, it was some great press for the "Clinton Brand."]
Hillary was careful to emphasize that Bill's role was "private" and separate from the official discussions between America and the North: “I want to be sure people don’t confuse what Bill did, which was a private humanitarian mission to bring these young women home, with our policy..."
We haven't run across President Carter's reaction to losing out on the mission. Given his fondness for high-profile diplomatic initiatives, and willingness even to fly commercial on this one, we don't imagine he was smiling:
One addition note: Accompanying President Clinton on his trip to Pyongyang was his long-time aide and former White House Chief of Staff, John Podesta.
Podesta is now Chairman of Hillary's presidential campaign.
Returning from the trip Hillary's chief of staff pronounced "quite fab," Prodesta quipped: "I think I am now waived in to practice in the North Korean military courts." (Editorial aside: Those are probably not the courts in which Hillary may one day need Podesta's legal assistance.)