North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il may have emerged from his Tuesday meeting with former president Bill Clinton convinced that bullying tactics and "bad behavior" pay off, observers and analysts warn.
In return for pardoning and releasing American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, they say, the ailing leader of a pariah state brought a former US president to his door and shored up his legitimacy at home and abroad.
Yet, they add, Kim's Stalinist state had bolted from multinational nuclear disarmament talks, staged an underground nuclear weapons blast, test fired a volley of missiles, and jailed the two journalists for 12 years of hard labor.
If pictures are worth a thousand words, there is one with a beaming Kim and a stern Clinton. Kim had after all just received his highest-level visitor since Clinton's own secretary of state Madeleine Albright made the trip to Pyongyang in 2000.
Even though the White House claimed it was "solely a private mission," analysts agreed it was in fact both blessed by and coordinated with President Barack Obama's administration.
John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations and an outspoken hardliner in the previous administration of George W. Bush, said the visit was a bad idea even if all the details about it were not immediately known.
"It comes perilously close to negotiating with terrorists," Bolton told AFP.
Clinton, Bolton argued, has undermined the public stand taken by his own wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who just last month likened North Korea to an unruly teenager who should be ignored.
"I think this is a very bad signal because it does exactly what we always try and avoid doing with terrorists, or with rogue states in general, and that's encouraging their bad behavior," Bolton said.
The visit, he said, also undermines Secretary Clinton's public remarks in which she separates the case of the two journalists from efforts to force North Korea to return to six-party nuclear disarmament talks.
"Hillary has said she wanted to delink the two but (Bill) Clinton was met at the airport by Kim Kye-Gwan who is the lead -- and has been for 15 years or more -- the lead North Korean nuclear negotiator," he added.
Bolton favors isolating North Korea over negotiating with it -- a state that he believes is bent on securing its status as a nuclear weapons state through negotiations.
For Nicholas Eberstadt, analyst at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, the Clinton trip is another in an "unending series of miscalculations and blunders" by the United States concerning North Korea.
"They must think it's Christmas in August to get former president Clinton finally to come to their country," Eberstadt told BBC television.
Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution, had mixed feelings.
On one hand, he told AFP, Clinton can deny he is an official envoy and the Obama administration can distance itself from any concessions the North Koreans may claim the former president makes.
"But I do worry about the overall trend, which is North Korea setting the pace and the agenda of our interactions," O'Hanlon said.
Though Clinton did not lift sanctions, deliver economic aid or undermine the military preparedness of regional allies, O'Hanlon was bothered by what he called the "symbolic effect of giving legitimacy to Kim Jong-Il."
Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear disarmament expert as head of the Ploughshares Fund, was emphatic about the trip's value.
"Wrong," he said when asked if it amounted to appeasement.
The Obama administration, he said, actually ignored the provocations for eight months and North Korea has been "rather quiet" since the United States, joined by North Korean ally China, helped pass tightened UN sanctions.
"The North Koreans will see this (visit) as a sign of respect and will understand there could be a high level of official talks should they take the right steps," Cirincione said.
Analysts like Cirincione hope the visit will pave the way for North Korea's return to the six-party nuclear disarmament talks with the United States as well as China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.
They say such a return may happen first through direct talks with Washington, albeit under the six-party umbrella.
Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and an Obama supporter, hailed Clinton's mission.
"It cools down the atmospherics" following so much tension, he told CNN television. "Both sides get something. Maybe what we also get is a framework for (nuclear) talks."