Freed U.S. journalists on way home from North Korea

Former President Clinton meets Tuesday with North Korea leader Kim Jong Il.
The families of two U.S. journalists imprisoned in North Korea asked former President Bill Clinton to travel to the Communist country and seek the release of the two women, a senior administration official said.

Former Vice President Al Gore, whose California-based media outfit Current TV employs Laura Ling and Euna Lee, also made the same appeal to Clinton. Clinton was dispatched to Pyongyang after the United States determined that his mission would be successful, the official told reporters Tuesday night on condition of anonymity. He stressed that Clinton’s trip was strictly a private humanitarian mission and did not include pressing international issues, including North Korea’s nuclear program, on the agenda. Earlier in the day, North Korea pardoned Ling, 32, and Lee, 36. They climbed a flight of stairs to the door of a jet, where they shook Clinton’s hand before beginning their trip back to the United States. Watch what may lie behind the pick of Bill Clinton » “They are en route to Los Angeles where Laura and Euna will be reunited with their families,” said Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna in a written statement. Ling and Lee were arrested in March while reporting from the border between North Korea and China and sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor on charges of entering the country illegally to conduct a smear campaign.

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In a phone call to their families in July, the two women said the North Koreans were open to granting amnesty if a high-level envoy, such as former President Clinton, were willing to travel to Pyongyang, the administration official said. That is when the families and Gore appealed to Clinton. The official said President Barack Obama called the women’s families Tuesday evening and expressed relief that they would be reunited soon. Doug Ling, Laura’s father, reacted to the news outside his home in Carmichael, California, with, “One of the best days in my life … I figured, sooner or later, they’d be back.” Watch Ling’s father welcome his daughter’s pardon » In Los Angeles, family friend Welly Yang said the Ling family had “done everything they could, while respecting the North Korean government, to try and get Laura home.” He predicted that Ling would remain a journalist. “Despite this terrifying experience, I can’t imagine that Laura would give up her passion to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t be heard.” “We want to thank the Obama administration for its continuous and determined efforts to achieve this outcome, and President Clinton for his willingness to undertake this mission,” Current Media co-founders Gore and Joel Hyatt said in a written statement. “All of us at Current are overjoyed at Laura and Euna’s safe return. Our hearts go out to them — and to their families — for persevering through this horrible experience.” Ling and Lee’s release Wednesday came after Clinton met with top government officials in Pyongyang. “Clinton expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong Il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists against the DPRK after illegally intruding into it,” the news agency reported. “Clinton courteously conveyed to Kim Jong Il an earnest request of the U.S. government to leniently pardon them and send them back home from a humanitarian point of view. However, the U.S. administration official said he knew nothing about an apology. He said Clinton met for a total of three hours and 15 minutes with the North Korean leader but said he did not know what issues were discussed. But he said that Clinton’s views on a verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula are “well known.” KCNA said “the meetings had candid and in-depth discussions on the pending issues between the DPRK and the U.S. in a sincere atmosphere and reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement of them.” The report said Clinton then conveyed a message from Obama “expressing profound thanks for this and reflecting views on ways of improving the relations between the two countries.” But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had told reporters in Washington before the announced agreement that Clinton was not carrying any message — written or oral — from Obama. Gibbs added that the former president last spoke with Obama during a White House visit in March. He described Clinton’s trip as a “solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans.” The report from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the nation’s official name, described the agreement to release the journalists as “a manifestation of the DPRK’s humanitarian and peace-loving policy. “The DPRK visit of Clinton and his party will contribute to deepening the understanding between the DPRK and the U.S. and building the bilateral confidence.” The visit by the former president, whose wife, Hillary Clinton, is the Obama administration’s secretary of state, came about three weeks after the United States dropped a request that Ling and Lee be released on humanitarian grounds. Instead, the United States was seeking amnesty for the women, Hillary Clinton said. Clinton’s mission came as the United States and its allies in the region are seeking to persuade North Korea to return to nuclear disarmament talks, which have stalled. North Korea conducted its second nuclear bomb test in May and has conducted several missile tests since. The United Nations has responded to those tests by tightening and expanding sanctions on the nation. North Korea and the United States were on opposite sides in the 1950-1953 Korean War and had no regular contacts before a 1994 crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program. North Korea agreed then to halt the development of nuclear weapons but abandoned that accord and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.

Clinton had considered visiting North Korea in 2000 near the end of his second term as president. His secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, had gone to Pyongyang in early 2000 to meet with Kim. The 67-year-old North Korean leader is widely reported to have suffered a stroke a year ago and is believed to be grooming his youngest son, Kim Jon Un, as his successor.