Who's talking to North Korea?

In the opaque, dangerous days after North Korea sentenced two American journalists to 12 years’ hard labor, the White House faced the challenge of fashioning a response that doesn’t raise the tension level with the volatile hermit nation with a burgeoning nuclear weapons program.

But that wasn’t all: The Obama administration also had to get Gov. Bill Richardson off television.

At a time when North Korea’s uncertain leadership and bracingly bellicose threat to the stability of the region have put Pyongyang high on the radar of the new administration, the interest and expertise of Richardson, former Vice President Al Gore and even the Rev. Jesse Jackson have created the need for diplomacy first on this side of the Pacific. Diplomacy, that is, and the sound of silence.

The New Mexico governor, who negotiated the return of Americans from North Korea in the 1990s, was a ubiquitous presence in the early days of the crisis, but on Monday, he abruptly went dark and is now refusing all media requests, Caitlin Kelleher, a spokeswoman, said.

His silence, people following the situation closely said, is part of a broader administration strategy to handle the delicate situation with immense care and as low a public profile as possible.

“Everyone understands that it’s a very sensitive diplomatic situation and the need to proceed cautiously as we move forward and attempt to secure the release of the two journalists,” said Fred Jones, a spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has not commented on the situation.

Of all the countries competing for the new president’s attention, none has been more aggressive — or more unpredictable — than North Korea. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Il, launched a long-range missile just hours before President Barack Obama delivered a landmark nonproliferation speech. He carried out an underground nuclear test just last month.

But the imprisonment of the two journalists has taken the provocations to a new, more personal level — posing real dangers for an administration that had been seeking productive, midlevel talks with North Korea.

The women risk being made pawns in negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program, something the White House is eager to avoid. The stakes — the lives of two American citizens — are painfully clear, and the sister of one, former CNN reporter Lisa Ling, is no stranger to the White House, having been a prominent campaign supporter.

The two are also being held in a country whose leadership structure remains opaque to outsiders and whose leader has grown increasingly unpredictable and is “not operating according to the old playbook,” said a North Korea expert at American University, Peter Beck.

Making the situation more complicated at home, two major American figures have also taken high-profile roles. Richardson, long an international troubleshooter, inserted himself as a ubiquitous television figure, saying he stood “ready to do anything” Obama asked.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson on Wednesday pronounced himself “willing” to travel to Pyongyang, as well.

Gore, meanwhile, did not choose his role: The two reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, are employees of his Current TV. 

“Former Vice President Gore has no comment on this matter for reasons that he hopes are understandable. He is grateful for the close attention being paid by the president and members of his administration. Gore has not spoken publicly but has reportedly spoken to the families of the journalists and is coordinating closely with the White House,” said a Gore spokeswoman, Kalee Kreider.

A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, declined to comment on the situation.

Gore is said to be ready to travel to Pyongyang as an envoy as well, and such missions have resolved previous crises with Korea. But the administration already has a lower-profile special envoy to the region, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, and hasn’t yet signaled how it will proceed.

“We are working ... in every way open to us to persuade the North Korean government to release the two journalists on a humanitarian basis. And we’re going to continue to pursue every possible avenue,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters Tuesday.

One of the administration’s central choices is how high to raise the profile of the situation. After the two women’s arrest in March, both the White House and the women’s families kept their words “carefully modulated,” noted Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert at the Asia Foundation.

“The logic is essentially that there are past precedents under which it’s been possible to secure the release of Americans detained in North Korea by handling it in a low-profile way,” said Snyder. The White House aim is “to play this down so as not to give the North Koreans the perception that they have a lot of leverage and to keep the ‘humanitarian’ separate from the political.

“But of course in North Korea, everything is political, so they’re looking for signals in one form or another that there’s a change in the political environment here.”

That, experts said, is where the public discipline is so important: The White House considers it crucial not to send mixed signals to North Korea.

Now the key decision is whether to elevate the crisis by sending a high-profile envoy.

“The advantage of an Al Gore or a Bill Richardson is that by bumping it up so high, you have the potential to get around this problem where every underling [of Kim] can’t do anything but make the hardest-line decision,” said Gordon Flake, a North Korea expert who is president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation. “But by raising the profile of the person who goes, be it Gore or Richardson, you also raise the stakes. You have to be pretty careful about it. You want to make sure there is a deal done in advance that they would be released before that person goes.”

Korea analysts see Gore as the likelier envoy, in part because Richardson was seen as campaigning for the role in his television appearances. But Richardson’s desire for the role, amid a painful lame-duck governorship shadowed by a withdrawn Cabinet nomination and ongoing investigations, is evident.

“I’m sure North Korea is probably a relatively friendly place to him right now,” said Flake.

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