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Page last updated at 18:58 GMT, Wednesday, 5 August 2009 19:58 UK

Freed US reporters welcomed home

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There was an emotional reunion as the two women left the plane

Two US reporters freed from detention in North Korea have been reunited with their families in Los Angeles.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were pardoned after former US President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang.

The two women had been found guilty of entering North Korea illegally in March and sentenced to 12 years hard labour.

US President Barack Obama praised Mr Clinton's "extraordinary humanitarian effort" and said he hoped the reunited families would enjoy the coming days.

"The reunion we've all seen on television, I think, is a source of happiness not only for the families but also for the entire country," Mr Obama added.

The past 140 days have been the most difficult and heart-wrenching times
Laura Ling

His spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said Mr Clinton would brief the president's national security team on his visit to Pyongyang.

But he denied official North Korean reports that Mr Clinton had apologised on behalf of the US for the actions of the two reporters, stressing that the former president carried no message to North Korea.

Mr Obama also insisted that future relations with North Korea depended more on whether progress could be made on disarming Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme.

"We have said to the North Koreans there's a path for improved relations and it involves them no longer developing nuclear weapons, not engaging in provocative behavior," he told US TV network MSNBC.

"We just want to make sure the government of North Korea is operating within the basic rules of the international community."

'Private envoy'

The two reporters, who work for Current TV, a California-based media venture co-founded by former US Vice-President Al Gore, left Pyongyang after North Korean leader Kim Jong-il issued them with a special pardon.

They travelled on a chartered flight to Los Angeles alongside Mr Clinton, touching down at Burbank airport shortly before 0600 (1300 GMT) on Wednesday morning.

Freed journalist's 'surprise' at release

Tears flowed freely as they walked down the steps and into the arms of their families.

Waiting on the tarmac was 36-year-old Euna Lee's daughter, Hanna, aged four, as well as her husband Michael Saldage.

Laura Ling's husband Iain Clayton was also waiting for her, as were parents and other relatives of both women.

Holding back tears after an emotional reunion with their families, Ms Ling, 32, spoke on behalf of both journalists, describing their surprise and relief at being taken to a meeting in North Korea to find Mr Clinton standing in the room.

ANALYSIS
Adam Brookes
Adam Brookes
BBC News, Washington

As early as March - soon after the two journalists were arrested - contacts between the Americans and the North Koreans got underway. About 10 days ago, sources say, the North Koreans sent a list of the names of those they would welcome to Pyongyang to take the two journalists home. Bill Clinton's name was on it.

Mr Clinton spent more than three hours with Kim Jong-il. First a meeting, and then dinner. And the question that is being asked all over Washington today is: what did they talk about?

Just a few months ago, North Korea was lobbing missiles into the Sea of Japan. In May it tested a nuclear weapon. Now we seem to have a marked change in atmosphere.

"We were shocked. But we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end," she said.

Thanking Mr Clinton and his staff, Ms Ling said the pair would now spend some "private, quiet" time with their families and that they were grateful to North Korea for granting an amnesty

"The past 140 days have been the most difficult and heart-wrenching times of our lives," she said.

The two reporters were arrested by North Korean guards while filming a video about North Korean refugees for Current TV.

The BBC's Daniel Sandford, in Washington, says that it appears the two women never really began their sentence and were held in relative comfort in a guest house for most of their time in North Korea.

Instead, our correspondent says, they were used fairly cynically by Pyongyang as pawns in a diplomatic game.

The North Koreans have been able to use the two journalists to secure a visit by an extremely senior US envoy, he adds.

'Separate issue'

In Pyongyang, the official North Korean News Agency (KCNA) said their release was a sign of the country's "humanitarian and peace-loving policy".

Bill Clinton with one of the released reporters

Mr Clinton's unannounced visit to Pyongyang had been described as a private mission but a White House official later confirmed that North Korea had asked Mr Clinton to visit.

The official said the women had told their families during telephone calls from prison that Pyongyang had suggested they could be freed if Mr Clinton came to the country as a private envoy.

A senior US official said President Obama had been aware of the mission from its early stages and that US allies involved in the six party talks over North Korea's nuclear programme were also informed.

US officials earlier said the North Korean government had agreed in advance that Mr Clinton's mission would not touch on the question of its nuclear programme.

US JOURNALISTS PARDONED
17 March: Euna Lee 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
5 August: The two journalists arrive in Los Angeles on a flight with Mr Clinton

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

Speaking as she arrived in Kenya at the start of a tour of Africa, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the release and said that she had briefly spoken to her husband.

She also stressed that the journalists' release was "a totally separate issue" from the nuclear talks.

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

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



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