One-time North Korean prisoners Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller are back on US soil, having landed Saturday night near Tacoma, Wash. They were retrieved by National Intelligence Director James Clapper, and the New York Times today reads into the decision to send Clapper—rather than a senior diplomat—to get the men, calling the move both a "surprise" and "unusual." As the Times puts it, it's not often that the US sends one of its top intelligence officials deep into a country that has called us its "sworn enemy"; in the past, "smooth-talking retired luminaries" like Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have made the journey, notes the AP, which labels Clapper "gruff."
According to administration officials, the move was a calculated one designed to make clear that North Korea would not see sanctions relief, or an opening in negotiations, in exchange for the men's release. "It was not to pursue any diplomatic opening," says one. As the AP sees it, the spy chief was senior enough to convey a message of respect, but was able to beg off from any unrelated political demands by North Korea. At 38 North, Robert Carlin puts it slightly differently: "It may be that the decision to send Clapper has mostly to do with allegorical concerns on both sides—the North wanted someone 'high level,' but the Obama administration did not want anyone of political consequence, and so Clapper was picked as the lowest common denominator." Meanwhile, Dennis Rodman is, not exactly surprisingly, taking some of the credit.