Bill Clinton rejoins the merry-go-round

Barack Obama's decision to send Bill Clinton to North Korea will be seen as a gamble by both fans and critics of the US administration's policy of engagement with "states of concern". While Clinton's primary aim is to secure the release of two American journalists arrested last March, this unexpectedly bold demarche will inevitably be viewed strategically as yet another attempt by Washington to bring the enigmatic panjandrums of Pyongyang in from the cold.

US policy towards North Korea is more circular than linear, resembling a not so jolly merry-go-round that sooner or later carries the diplomatic traveller back to the place he started. As president, Clinton came close to bombing suspected nuclear weapons-making facilities before shifting tack and seeking normalisation of state-to-state ties through the 1994 Agreed Framework. In 2000, he sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, to Pyongyang, in a vain bid to boost the process.

Under George Bush and his hawkish arms control envoy, John Bolton, relations rapidly regressed and the framework fell apart in 2003. Tougher international sanctions followed. But North Korea doggedly pursued its atomic ambitions and, in October 2006, detonated a small nuclear device, thereby joining the "nuclear club". It had also become a prime proliferation risk in terms of its proven or presumed collaboration with Pakistan, Libya and possibly Iran.

Like its predecessors, and realising that pressure tactics were not working, the Bush administration came full circle. It sought to induce North Korea through the so-called six-party talks process to abandon its nuclear activities in return for economic and energy assistance and a general thaw in relations. For a while the policy seemed to be working; Pyongyang decommissioned its main Yongbyon reactor and allowed international inspections.

But then, for reasons that remain unclear, the deal soured. Perhaps the cause was the harsh impact of continuing financial sanctions on the regime's private finances; perhaps it was an internal power struggle over the succession to the ailing Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader; or perhaps its was the advent in Washington of a new, untested president to succeed Bush.

Whatever the reason, North Korea's behaviour began to deteriorate rapidly earlier this year. It exploded a second atomic bomb in May, fired ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, and declared the six-party talks to be dead and buried. It is rumoured to be preparing a long-range missile launch into the Pacific, in what would be a blatant attempt to intimidate the US. It was during this period of growing confrontation that the two journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who work for a television company co-founded by Clinton's former vice-president, Al Gore, were arrested, charged with spying, and sentenced to hard labour.

With Bill Clinton's arrival in Pyongyang today, the merry-go-round appears to have turned full circle once again. The former president was reportedly feted on arrival by senior officials, including the country's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan. He will presumably meet Kim, assuming he is still alive and well (not necessarily a given).

And it is a likely assumption that, while he holds no official position as a US envoy, Clinton will be carrying a private message from Obama for the Dear Leader suggesting, in the style of Obama's dealings with Iran and Syria, that it is better to talk than exchange threats and insults.

Given the North's always unpredictable behaviour, this is a huge gamble.

Kim and his cronies may decide to exploit the situation, portraying their visitor as a supplicant come to apologise for past misdeeds. They may interpret his presence as a sign of US and western political weakness; it may actually encourage their defiance of the international community, as expressed through last June's UN security council resolution 1874 (which condemned the May nuclear test and imposed additional sanctions). In this scenario, any release of the two journalists will be characterised as an act of great magnanimity by the Dear Leader. That is the risk Obama is running.

"Kim's Stalinist dictatorship may be the most evil regime on the planet today," said Jeff Jacoby in a critique of Obama's Korea policy published in the Boston Globe before the Clinton visit. "Quite apart from its aggressive international provocations, its domestic human rights abuses are beyond horrendous. While nearly all North Koreans suffer repression, the worst off by far are the hundreds of thousands trapped in Kim's monstrous slave-labour gulag." Was Obama's "softly softly" approach the best way to deal with these "demented totalitarians", he asked.

Many on the American right will echo that sentiment, saying Pyongyang is being rewarded for bad behaviour. But as always, there is a contrary view balancing the merry-go-round. It may just be that Clinton, unlike Albright and Jimmy Carter (who visited in 1994), will be able genuinely to break the ice, can convince the North's leadership that the benefits of dialogue and detente outweigh the costs of confrontation – and that a return to a negotiating table groaning with attractive incentives for good behaviour is in their interests. The thinking in the White House can probably be summarised along these line: Bill wants to go, it's worth a try, nothing else has worked, so let's do it.

Quite how this fits with the hawkish views expressed by Clinton's wife, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, during her tour or the region last month is not entirely clear. On the one hand, she told Asian leaders that the US was ready to make friends with North Korea if it renounced its nuclear weapons and proliferation activities. "Full normalisation of relations, a permanent peace regime, and significant energy and economic assistance are all possible in the context of full and verifiable denuclearisation," Hillary Clinton said in a statement in Thailand.

On the other hand, the secretary of state took a publicly much more aggressive line than her husband, comparing the North Korean leadership to unruly children who had brought punishment down on their own heads. The North Koreans' responded angrily to this scolding, calling her "vulgar" and "less than clever".

"There is no place to go for North Korea, they have no friends left that will protect them from the international community," Clinton warned.

Reports from the Association of South-East Asian Nations summit described her tone as unyielding. Pyongyang had shown no interest in a dialogue. But it would have to take "complete and irreversible" steps towards fulfilling US demands before receiving any economic or political incentives, she said.

Now, possibly to her surprise, a very large, unsolicited political incentive has turned up in Pyongyang in the shape of the ever club-able Bubba, her very own husband, Bill. This coincidence may make for an interesting conversation when he gets home. In the meantime, the secretary of state is keeping mum. "While the mission is in progress we will have no comment," her spokesman said crisply. "Out interest here is the successful completion of the mission and the safe return of the journalists."

Simon Tisdall, an assistant editor of the Guardian and a foreign affairs columnist.