The recent release of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee from North Korea raises a number of questions about future relations between the United States and North Korea.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton flew to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean officials, including leader Kim Jong Il, to try to secure the journalists' release.

Why was the former president selected for this mission? "We will never know," said Richard Bush, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Kim Jong Il may have wanted a good, facesaving way to turning over the two women. President Clinton had thought about going to North Korea in 2000. I think that he was the kind of high-profile person that North Korea needed at this time."

The decision to release the two journalists could help the North Korean leader's image. "Kim Jong Il will gain significantly from former President Clinton's visit," said Richard Bush. "I think his gain is mainly domestically, in terms of solidifying the succession arrangement that he's put in place." Kim recently indicated that his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, would be his successor.

On 13 August, North Korea also released a South Korean businessman who was detained because he allegedly insulted Pyongyang's communist system. North Korea continues to hold four South Korean fishermen whose boat was found in North Korean waters last month.

The United States and North Korea have clashed over a variety of issues, especially those involving the Asian nation's military program. But those disagreements seemed to be put aside with the release of the journalists.

"Most importantly, the [Obama] administration succeeded in separating the case of the two girls and the visit of President Clinton from the bigger issues in the U.S.-North Korean relationship," said Richard Bush. "And they blocked completely, as far as we know, any attempts by the North Koreans to use the two women as leverage to extract concessions from the United States on the nuclear issues."

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton was critical of the circumstances surrounding the release of the two journalists, saying the photographs of former President Clinton with Kim Jong Il amounted to a "propaganda victory" for the North Koreans.