Page last updated at 04:25 GMT, Wednesday, 5 August 2009 05:25 UK

Two freed US reporters head home


US reporters fly out of Pyongyang

Former US President Bill Clinton has left North Korea with two US reporters whose release he has helped to secure.

His spokesman said they were flying to Los Angeles where the journalists would be reunited with their families.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il issued a special pardon to the journalists after meeting Mr Clinton on Tuesday.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee had been found guilty of entering illegally in March. Mr Clinton offered no apology for the reporters' conduct, a US official said.

The senior US administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said the two reporters were in "very good health" and that the North Korean government had agreed in advance that Mr Clinton's mission would not touch on the question of its nuclear programme.

Bill Clinton with one of the released reporters

Pyongyang dropped out of six-party talks after the UN censured a long-range missile test in April. The parties include Russia, China, Japan, the US and both Koreas.

An underground nuclear test and further missile tests followed, provoking new UN Security Council sanctions.

Mr Clinton's unannounced visit to Pyongyang was described as a private mission.

He was the highest-profile American to visit the reclusive Communist state since ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000.

Families 'overjoyed'

After leaving Pyongyang, the plane with Mr Clinton and the two reporters landed at a US military base in northern Japan for refuelling, Japan's NHK broadcaster said. The chartered jet later departed for Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, the official North Korean News Agency (KCNA) said in a statement that "Kim Jong-il issued an order... granting a special pardon to the two American journalists who had been sentenced to hard labour".

Laura Ling's father, Douglas: "I'm so glad" - Courtesy Yonhap News

The women's pardon and release was a sign of North Korea's "humanitarian and peace-loving policy", it said.

The families of the journalists said they were "overjoyed" by the news.

In a statement posted on a website, they thanked Mr Clinton and also former Vice-President Al Gore for their efforts to get the women released.

President Barack Obama has telephoned the journalists' families to express relief at their return from North Korea.

Clinton's role

Briefing a small group of reporters in Washington, the US administration official later revealed some details of how Mr Clinton's mission had been planned.

He said Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, told their families during telephone calls from prison that Pyongyang had suggested to them that, if Mr Clinton came as a private envoy to the country, they would be freed.

The official said Washington later concluded that Pyongyang's offer was valid enough to involve Mr Clinton in trying to secure the reporters' release.

He added that Mr Clinton later met State Department and White House officials to discuss the plan before flying to Pyongyang.

Washington had made no announcement of Mr Clinton's trip prior to his arrival on Tuesday.

Euna Lee, left, and Laura Ling
17 March: Euna Lee, left, and Laura Ling seized by North Korean border guards while reporting for California-based Current TV
8 June: Sentenced to 12 years in jail for "hostile acts" and illegal entry into North Korea
16 June: North Korea says journalists have "admitted and accepted" their guilt
10 July: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeals for an amnesty for the two
4 August: Former US President Bill Clinton arrives in Pyongyang and North Korea later announces the journalists will be pardoned

Mr Clinton landed in Pyongyang in an unmarked plane and was greeted at the airport by North Korean officials.

KCNA said Mr Clinton met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, although the White House denied its report that Mr Clinton had conveyed a message from US President Barack Obama.

In all, Mr Clinton and his team met Kim Jong-il and his staff for more than three hours, the US administration official said. He did not give any further details of the talks.

The two reporters had been found guilty of entering North Korea illegally across the Chinese border in March and were sentenced to 12 years' hard labour.

They were arrested by North Korean guards while filming a video about refugees for California-based internet broadcaster Current TV.

The White House had pressed for their release, and Mr Clinton's wife, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asked last month that they be granted amnesty.

Analysts say that Kim Jong-il is eager to improve relations with Washington as he prepares to name a successor.

President Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke a year ago and also has chronic diabetes and heart disease. Analysts say his third son is being lined up to succeed him.

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