SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Il issued a "special pardon" freeing two jailed American journalists after talks with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, North Korea's
official news agency announced Wednesday.
Clinton, who arrived in North Korea Tuesday on an unannounced visit, met with the reclusive and ailing Kim for talks described as
"exhaustive." It was Kim's first meeting with a prominent Western
figure since his reported stroke nearly a year ago.
The release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested March 17 near the China-North Korea border, was a sign of North Korea's
"humanitarian and peaceloving policy," the Korean Central News
State media said Clinton apologized on behalf of the women and relayed President Barack Obama's gratitude. The report said the visit would "contribute to deepening the understanding" between North Korea and the U.S.
It was unclear if Clinton and the women had left the country. The report said the Clinton visit was taking place Tuesday and Wednesday.
While the White House emphasized the private nature of Clinton's trip, his landmark visit to Pyongyang to free the Americans was a coup that came at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea's nuclear program.
The meeting also appeared aimed at dispelling persistent questions about the health of the authoritarian North Korean leader, who was said to be suffering from chronic diabetes and heart disease before the reported stroke.
Kim smiled broadly for a photo standing next to a towering Clinton. He was markedly thinner than a year ago, with his graying hair cropped short. The once-pudgy 67-year-old, who for decades had a noticeable pot belly, wore a khaki jumpsuit and appeared frail and diminutive in a group shot seated next to a robust Clinton.
North Korea accused Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, both of former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture, of sneaking into the
country illegally in March and engaging in unspecified "hostile acts." The nation's top court sentenced them in June to 12 years of hard labor.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged North Korea last month to grant them amnesty, saying they were remorseful and their families anguished by their detainment.
The families of Ling and Lee said they were "overjoyed by the news of their pardon."
"We are so grateful to our government: President Obama, Secretary Clinton and the U.S. State Department for their dedication to and hard work on behalf of American citizens," the families said in a statement. "We especially want to thank President Bill Clinton for taking on such an arduous mission and Vice President Al Gore for his tireless efforts to bring Laura and Euna home.
"We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms," the statement said.
Lee, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, is the mother of a 4-year-old. Ling, a California native, is the younger sister of Lisa Ling, a correspondent for CNN as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "National Geographic Explorer."
They were arrested as they reported about the trafficking of women. It's unclear if they strayed into the North or were grabbed by aggressive border guards who crossed into China but recent statements suggested they admitted to deliberately crossing into
North Korean state media said Clinton and Kim held wide-ranging talks, adding that Clinton "courteously" conveyed a verbal message from Obama.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denied Clinton went with a message from Obama. "That's not true," he told reporters.
"While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment" until the mission is complete, Gibbs said in a statement. "We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton's mission."
Clinton was accompanied by John Podesta, his onetime White House
chief of staff, who also is an informal adviser to Obama.
Clinton was accorded honors typically reserved for heads of state. Senior officials, led by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, who also serves as the regime's chief nuclear negotiator, met his private unmarked plane as it arrived Tuesday morning.
Video from the APTN television news agency showed Clinton exchanging warm handshakes with officials and accepting a bouquet
of flowers from a schoolgirl.
Kim later hosted a banquet for Clinton at the state guesthouse, Radio Pyongyang and the Korean Central Broadcasting Station reported. The VIPs and Kim posed for a group shot in front of the same garish mural depicting a stormy seaside landscape that Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, posed for during her historic visit to Pyongyang in 2000.
Clinton is relatively well-regarded in North Korea, mostly for a less-bellicose attitude toward the country during his administration.
Just last month, North Korea's Foreign Ministry had harsh words for his wife, describing her as "a funny lady" who sometimes "looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping."
In the past, envoys have been dispatched to Pyongyang to secure
the release of Americans. In the 1990s, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a congressman at the time, went twice on similar missions: in 1994 to arrange the freedom of a U.S. pilot whose helicopter strayed into North Korean airspace and again two years later to fetch an American detained for three months on spying charges.
Richardson, Clinton and Gore, Clinton's vice president, had all been named as possible envoys to bring back Lee and Ling. However, the decision to send Clinton was kept quiet, revealed only when he turned up Tuesday in Pyongyang.
The trip was reminiscent of one 15 years ago by former President Jimmy Carter when Clinton was in office, also at a time of tensions
over North Korea's nuclear program.
Carter's visit - he met with Kim Jong Il's father, the late Kim Il Sung - helped thaw the deep freeze in relations with the Korean War foe and paved the way for discussions on nuclear disarmament. Clinton later sent Albright to Pyongyang for talks with Kim in a high point in the often rocky relations with North Korea.
Discussions about normalizing ties went dead when George W. Bush
took office in 2001 with a hard-line policy on Pyongyang. The Obama
administration has expressed a willingness to hold bilateral talks - but only within the framework of the six-nation disarmament talks in place since 2003.
North Korea announced earlier this year it was abandoning the talks involving the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, China and the U.S. The regime also launched a long-range rocket, conducted a nuclear test, test-fired a barrage of ballistic missiles and restarted its atomic program in defiance of international criticism and the U.N. Security Council.
Last month, the U.S. Navy tailed a North Korean cargo ship as it sailed south suspected of carrying cargo banned under a U.N. resolution on board until the vessel turned around and returned to port.
Kim inherited leadership of impoverished North Korea upon his father's death in 1994, 20 years after being anointed the heir apparent. Kim has not publicly named his successor but is believed to be grooming his third son, 26-year-old Jong Un, to take over.
Associated Press writers Jae-soon Chang in Seoul, Matthew Lee at
Naval Station Rota, Spain, Samantha Young in Sacramento, Calif.,
and AP researcher Jasmine Zhao in Beijing contributed to this