In the past, envoys have been dispatched to Pyongyang to secure the release of Americans. In the 1990s, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a congressman at the time, went twice on similar missions: in 1994 to arrange the freedom of a US pilot whose helicopter strayed into DPRK airspace and again two years later to fetch an American detained for three months on spying charges.
Richardson, Clinton and Gore, Clinton's vice president, had all been named as possible envoys to bring back Lee and Ling. However, the decision to send Clinton was kept quiet, revealed only when he turned up Tuesday in Pyongyang.
The trip was reminiscent of one 15 years ago by former President Jimmy Carter when Clinton was in office, also at a time of tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Carter's visit -- he met with Kim Jong Il's father, the late Kim Il Sung -- helped thaw the deep freeze in relations with the Korean War foe and paved the way for discussions on nuclear disarmament. Clinton later sent Albright to Pyongyang for talks with Kim in a high point in the often rocky relations with DPRK.
Discussions about normalizing ties went dead when George W. Bush took office in 2001 with a hard-line policy on Pyongyang. The Obama administration has expressed a willingness to hold bilateral talks, but only within the framework of the six-nation disarmament talks in place since 2003.
Pyongyang announced earlier this year it was abandoning the talks involving the DPRK, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the US. The DPRK also launched a long-range rocket, conducted a nuclear test, test-fired a barrage of ballistic missiles and restarted its atomic program in defiance of international criticism and the UN Security Council.
Last month, the US Navy tailed a DPRK cargo ship as it sailed south suspected of carrying cargo banned under a UN resolution on board until the vessel turned around and returned to port.
Kim inherited leadership of the DPRK upon his father's death in 1994, 20 years after being anointed the heir apparent. Kim has not publicly named his successor but is believed to be grooming his third son, 26-year-old Jong Un, to take over.