WASHINGTON (AP) — At first blush, James Clapper, the gruff former general who serves as director of national intelligence, seemed an odd choice of presidential envoy for a secret mission to retrieve two Americans imprisoned in North Korea.
For past visits to the unpredictable and reclusive country, the U.S. has sent smooth-talking retired luminaries such as Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Or North Korean experts, such as Sydney Seiler, a former intelligence official now with the State Department.
But Clapper may have been perfect for the job, say analysts who follow North Korea. The spy chief was senior enough to convey a message of respect, but he is not a diplomat, and so was able to beg off from any unrelated political demands by North Korea. The two countries lack diplomatic relations.
On Saturday, Clapper landed on a U.S. government plane with the two Americans, Matthew Miller of Bakersfield, California, and Kenneth Bae of Lynnwood, Washington, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Washington.
President Barack Obama approved the mission last week, a senior administration official said. Clapper spent roughly a day on the ground and met with North Korean security officials, but not North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to the official, who was traveling with Obama to Asia. Clapper and his aides have kept quiet about who he met with, or what was discussed.
Clapper went for the sole purpose of bringing home the two detainees, although the U.S. anticipated other issues of concern to the North would arise during the visit, said the official, who wasn't authorized to comment by name and requested anonymity.
The U.S. had considered sending someone from outside government for the secret mission, the official said, but suggested Clapper after the North Koreans indicated in recent weeks they would release the Americans if Obama dispatched a high-level official. Clapper landed the assignment because of his role as a security official.
Obama said Monday during a visit to Beijing that Clapper's meetings were "not high-level policy discussions" and did not touch on Pyongyang's nuclear provocations. He added that "when and if" North Korea agrees to pursue denuclearization, the U.S. will be "very open" to having discussions.
North Korea's decision to free the men does not herald a change in U.S. posture regarding the North's human rights record or its disputed nuclear program, said a second senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss national security matters. That official said there was no quid pro quo by the U.S. to gain the release.
Bae had been held since 2012 and was serving a 15-year sentence for alleged anti-government activities. Miller was arrested after entering the country in April. North Korean authorities accused him of planning to infiltrate a prison.
Their release came three weeks after a third American, Jeffrey Fowle of Miamisburg, Ohio, was set free by North Korea and put on a U.S. government plane.
"The director of national intelligence was just the right person for this," said Joseph DeTrani, who used to work for Clapper as the Director of National Intelligence's North Korean mission manager.
The conciliatory moves, after years of heated rhetoric and inflammatory actions, were in response to recent pressure over North Korea's human rights record, some analysts suggest.
A recent U.N. report documented rape, torture, executions and forced labor in the North's network of prison camps, accusing the government of "widespread, systematic and gross" human rights violations. China, North Korea's benefactor, is likely to block a prosecution of Kim.
"The commission report galvanized international resolve to act, including a pending U.N. resolution to refer North Korea and leader Kim Jong Un to the International Criminal Court," said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now at the Heritage Foundation.
DeTrani said he believed that report may have been a factor, but saw the releases as a sign North Korea "wants to come out of the penalty box."
"The North Koreans want to come back to negotiations," said DeTrani, who now leads an intelligence contractor trade group. "They are going through a bad patch. The last two years have been a disaster. They are more and more of an isolated state. We're seeing an outreach — the leadership in Pyongyang is saying, 'we've got to change course, it's not working.' "