Korean Central News Agency/AP/Korea News Service
Clinton, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and their aides in Pyongyang.
Seeing former president Bill Clinton in North Korea today on a mission to win the release of two journalists and perhaps raise other issues of concern in U.S.-North Korean relations immediately brings to mind a question:
Has any former president taken on such a job, presumably with the blessing of the current administration?
I called presidential historian Stephen Hess at the Brookings Institution to talk about the historical precedent. Hess basically said nothing quite like this has happened before.
We began with a conversation about the unique position Clinton is in as a former president and the husband of the secretary of State, and the big difference between his current mission — which would seem to be in line with the Obama administration's wishes — and the very independent type of diplomacy that former president Jimmy Carter has practiced over the years:
Then we discussed whether it's reasonable to believe that Clinton went to North Korea on a completely "private mission," as the White House has said. "Absolutely impossible," Hess says with a laugh:
As Hess adds, Clinton wants to be helpful to the current administration and has been briefed about its current policy toward North Korea:
Finally, Hess says that if this mission turns out well we should expect other such trips by the former president: