ATHENS, Ga. -- A University of Georgia professor played an important role in the release of two American journalists convicted of spying in North Korea.
But Han Park says he would rather talk about foreign policy than what he did to help free Laura Ling and Euna Lee, arrested in March when they crossed over from China into North Korean territory.
"It is a little bit embarrassing," Park said after media accounts surfaced about what he may have done behind the scenes before former President Clinton asked North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il for the women's release.
Convicted of entering the communist country illegally in June, the two women faced 12 years in prison at a hard-labor camp.
But Kim Jong Il pardoned the two women last week after Clinton visited.
Park helped set the stage for Clinton's trip when Park went to North Korea on July 4.
He already had scheduled the trip to organize an informal meeting in October in Athens among South Korean, North Korean and U.S. officials to discuss issues affecting the three nations.
For years, Park has acted as an unofficial liaison between the United States and North Korea.
And for decades, Park has helped reunite hundreds of families in the Koreas and China, separated by a long history of military strife.
But shortly before he left on his latest trip, Park got a call from U.S. State Department officials. Diplomats wanted Park to check on the conditions the women were being held in and find out what U.S. diplomats could do to obtain their release.
The women still were in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and were being treated well, Park reported - a sign that the country's leaders were open to negotiation and had not given in to conservatives who wanted the women to serve out their sentences.
"Hard-liners viewed that these criminals, like any criminals, must be sent to prison as the verdict required," Park said.
Park asked North Korean officials to allow the women to telephone their families, a request they granted before Park left the country.
He also told State Department officials what to do to get the women released.
First, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should tone down her rhetoric. In North Korean eyes, the women were criminals who had broken the country's laws.
U.S. officials should admit the women were breaking North Korean law, apologize for their behavior and ask North Korean officials for amnesty, Park told the U.S. State Department.
Just a couple of days after Park left the country, Clinton apologized and asked for amnesty for the women.
Park also told State Department officials the United States must send a high-level negotiator to obtain the women's release, someone of the stature of Bill Clinton.
Only Kim, the country's leader, can issue a pardon, and sending a lesser leader would have been bad protocol.
"Al Gore would not have been granted a meeting with Kim Jong Il," Park said.
Kim also remembered that Clinton sent Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to meet with North Korean leaders in the last year of Clinton's presidency.
"Kim Jong Il to this date is thinking Bill Clinton is the one who wanted to improve relations with North Korea. That's what they wanted all along," said Park, director of UGA's Center for the Study of Global Issues.
Clinton's visit may accomplish more than just the release of two border-crossing journalists - it could be a turning point in relations between the two countries, Park said.
"This is symbolically a very important meeting, because during their three, maybe three and a half hours together, they discussed a wide range of issues. Bill Clinton is not an ordinary private citizen. He is very high-powered, carrying a lot of influence in American foreign policy. Should Bill Clinton think we should really improve relations with North Korea, he can make some difference, and I think he should," Park said. "I think this will be an important impetus for important bilateral contacts."