In Pyongyang’s view, the two reporters are pawns in the larger game of enhancing the regime’s legitimacy and gaining direct access to important U.S. figures. The reporters’ arrest, show trial and subsequent imprisonment (twelve years hard labor) was hostage taking, essentially an act of state terrorism. So the Clinton trip is a significant propaganda victory for North Korea, whether or not he carried an official message from President Obama. Despite decades of bipartisan U.S. rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages, it seems that the Obama administration not only chose to negotiate, but to send a former president to do so.
While the United States is properly concerned whenever its citizens are abused or held hostage, efforts to protect them should not create potentially greater risks for other Americans in the future. Yet that is exactly the consequence of visits by former presidents or other dignitaries as a form of political ransom to obtain their release.