Bill Richardson, sometimes called America's ambassador to rogue states, went to Pyongyang at the invitation of Kim Kye-gwan, the country's chief nuclear negotiator. The trip, according to the US state department, was a "private visit" and the governor did not carry any official messages from Washington.
During the drama, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama's special North Korea envoy Stephen Bosworth were nowhere to be seen. Also invisible was Washington's Ambassador to Seoul, Kathleen Stephens. In short, America's diplomats melted into the background as a "freelancer" took center stage.
Mr Richardson's visit genuinely seems to be the result of Pyongyang's initiative. "When they call me they always want to send a message of some kind," the New Mexico governor said recently.
Mr Richardson seems particularly effective when it comes to getting things done in North Korea. In 1994 and again in 1996 he secured the release of US hostages in North Korea.
Similarly, Jimmy Carter secured the release of US national Aijalon Gomes from Pyongyang this August
Last year, former US President Bill Clinton, as a private citizen, brought back two television journalists from North Korea after the state department worked out the terms of their release.