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Freed U.S. Journalists Arrive Home from North Korea

Michael Ireland | Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service | Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Freed U.S. Journalists Arrive Home from North Korea

August 5, 2009

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has issued a special pardon to two detained U.S. journalists, the country's state news agency reports.

The news came hours after former U.S. President Bill Clinton made an unannounced visit to Pyongyang on what was described as a private mission. Clinton is the highest-profile American to visit since ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000.

The women arrived in Los Angeles Wednesday morning, where they were reunited with their family members, who have not seen the them since they were arrested and detained in March.

"We feared at any moment that we could be sent to a hard labor camp and then suddenly we were told we were going to a meeting," Ling told reporters Wednesday morning, according to CNN. She said the women didn't know Clinton had arrived to negotiate their release until they met him face to face. "We were shocked, but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end."

North Korea's state-sponsored newspaper reported the women's release as a "spcial pardon" that exemplified the country's "humanitarian and peace-loving policy."

The BBC said Washington had made no announcement of Mr. Clinton's trip prior to his arrival on Tuesday, but later stressed it was a private visit.

Media reports in Washington suggest the White House approved the mission and it had been secretly planned for weeks, the BBC's correspondent said. KCNA said that Clinton met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, although the White House denied its report that Clinton had conveyed a message from US President Barack Obama.

Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, had been found guilty of entering North Korea illegally across the Chinese border in March and were sentenced to 12 years' hard labor.

Ling and Lee are reporters for California-based Current TV, an internet broadcasting media venture launched by Clinton's former vice president, Al Gore.

The White House has been pressing for their release, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked last month that they be granted amnesty. Earlier in the day, White House Secretary Robert Gibbs said Bill Clinton was on a "solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans."

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

CNN reports the announcement of the journalists' freedom came after former U.S. President Bill Clinton met with top North Korean officials in Pyongyang to appeal for the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been arrested while reporting from the border between North Korea and China.

"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, a fact with U.S. officials have not confirmed. "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.

"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."

DPRK is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the nation's official name.

On Tuesday, the families of the reporters thanked Gore and Clinton and said they felt "overjoyed" upon hearing of the upcoming release of Ling and Lee.

"We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms," they said in a written statement.

A statement from their families posted Tuesday on the Web site www.lauraandeuna.com said, "The families of Laura Ling and Euna Lee are 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. 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."

The two reporters were sentenced in June to 12 years in prison on charges of entering the country illegally to conduct a smear campaign.

CNN explained that because the United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, efforts to resolve the issue had been handled through Sweden, which represents U.S. interests in North Korea.

The visit by the former president 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.

A plea for amnesty implies forgiveness for some offense, which could have given North Korea the chance to release the women without feeling that its legal system had been slighted, according to CNN analyst Mike Chinoy, an Edgerton senior fellow on Asia at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles.

Prior to the release, Chinoy said, "I suspect that it was made pretty clear in advance that Bill Clinton would be able to return with these two women, otherwise it would be a terrible loss of face for him."

Copyright 2009 ASSIST News Service. Used by permission. All rights reserved.