SEOUL, South Korea, (AP) – Former President Bill Clinton brought two freed U.S. journalists out of North Korea Wednesday following rare talks with reclusive leader Kim Jong Il, who pardoned the women sentenced to hard labor for entering the country illegally.
Euna Lee and Laura Ling were heading back to the U.S. with Clinton, his spokesman Matt McKenna said, less than 24 hours after the former U.S. leader landed in the North Korean capital on a private, humanitarian trip to secure their release.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hailed their release.
“Obviously I am very happy and relieved to have these two young woman, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, on their way home to their families,” she told reporters in Nairobi, Kenya. “I spoke to my husband on the airplane and everything went well. They are extremely excited to be reunited soon when they touch down in California. It was just a good day to be able to see this happen.”
The women, dressed in short-sleeved shirts and jeans, appeared healthy as they climbed the steps to the plane and shook hands with Clinton before getting into the jet, APTN footage in Pyongyang showed. Clinton waved, put his hand over his heart and then saluted.
North Korean officials waved as the plane took off. McKenna said the flight was bound for Los Angeles, where the journalists will be reunited with their families. The White House had no comment.
Hours later, a white jet that appeared similar to the one Clinton used to visit North Korea was seen landing and later taking off from the U.S. Misawa Air Force Base in northern Japan, though base officials refused to confirm it was Clinton’s.
The departure was a jubilant conclusion to a more than four-month ordeal for the women arrested near the North Korean-Chinese border in March while on a reporting trip for Current TV, the media venture founded by former Vice President Al Gore. They were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry and engaging in “hostile acts.”
Secretary Clinton had urged North Korea last month to grant them amnesty, saying they were remorseful and their families anguished.
North Korean media characterized the women’s release as proof of “humanitarian and peace-loving policy.”
Their families said they were “overjoyed” by the pardon. Lee, 36, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, is the mother of a 4-year-old. Ling, a 32-year-old California native, is the younger sister of Lisa Ling, a correspondent for CNN as well as “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “National Geographic Explorer.”
Clinton’s landmark trip to Pyongyang also resulted in rare talks with reclusive Kim Jong Il that state-run media described as “wide-ranging” and “exhaustive.” The meeting was Kim’s first with a prominent Western figure since reportedly suffering a stroke nearly a year ago.
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.
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 United States.
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.
A senior U.S. official said the reporters’ families and Gore asked the former president to travel to Pyongyang to seek their release and that Clinton’s mission did not include discussions about issues beyond that. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe events leading up to the Clinton trip and the women’s release.
Still, the mission is seen as the Obama administration letting Kim Jong Il save face by freeing the reporters. The payoff — maybe not right away — is likely to be renewed dialogue with Pyongyang about its nuclear weapons program.
“It could provide an opportunity to move forward on the nuclear issue, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Victor Cha, former Asia chief at the National Security Council. “The history with the North Koreans, as they have just done the past few months, is to put themselves out on a ledge. And they always need help getting off that ledge.”
The journalists’ release followed weeks of quiet negotiations between the State Department and the North Korean mission to the United Nations, said Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
Clinton “didn’t go to negotiate this, he went to reap the fruits of the negotiation,” Sneider said.
Pardoning Ling and Lee and having Clinton serving as their emissary served both North Korea’s need to continue maintaining that the two women had committed a crime and the Obama administration’s desire not to expend diplomatic capital winning their freedom, Sneider said.
“Nobody wanted this to be a distraction from the more substantially difficult issues we have with North Korea,” he said. “There was a desire by the administration to resolve this quietly and from the very beginning they didn’t allow it to become a huge public issue.”
Speaking out for the first time since their capture, Gore said in a joint statement with Current co-founder Joel Hyatt that everyone at the media outlet was overjoyed by the prospect of their safe return. “Our hearts go out to them and to their families for persevering through this horrible experience,” it said.
The Lee and Ling families thanked Obama, the secretary of state and the State Department.
“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,” it said. “We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists also welcomed their release.
In North Korea, 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.
Kim later hosted a banquet for Clinton at the state guesthouse, Radio Pyongyang and the Korean Central Broadcasting Station reported.
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.
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 accompanied by John Podesta, his one-time White House chief of staff, who also is an informal adviser to Obama.
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.
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.