North Korea: 2 U.S. journalists pardoned

August 4, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has issued a "special pardon" to two American journalists convicted of sneaking into the country illegally, and he ordered them released during a visit by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, North Korean media reported early Wednesday. -----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Read Statements from the Ling & Lee families, and others at the bottom of this story
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The move to free reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee reflected North Korea's "humanitarian and peaceloving policy," the Korean Central News Agency said in a dispatch from Pyongyang early Wednesday.

It was unclear when Clinton and the women would leave the country. The report said the Clinton visit was taking place Tuesday and Wednesday.

Clinton landed in the North Korean capital on Tuesday on a private mission to negotiate the freedom of the two women working for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture.

During his visit, he held rare talks with Kim -- the reclusive North Korean leader's first meeting with a prominent Western figure since reportedly suffering a stroke a year ago.

Lee, 36, and Ling, 32, were arrested in March after crossing into North Korea from China, where they had been reporting on North Korean defectors. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry and engaging in "hostile acts."

Washington had pushed for their release, with Clinton's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, requesting last month that they be granted amnesty. She described the women as remorseful, and expressed their families' anguish.

Lee, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, is married and has a 4-year-old daughter in Los Angeles; a native Californian, Ling is the married younger sister of TV journalist Lisa Ling.

State media said Clinton offered Kim "words of sincere apology" for the women's transgressions, and "courteously" conveyed President Barack Obama's gratitude for North Korea's leniency, KCNA said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, however, denied Clinton went with a message from Obama. "That's not true," he told reporters in Washington.

Clinton's landmark visit, which was not announced in advance by North Korea or the U.S., comes at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, foes during the Korean War of the 1950s, over the regime's nuclear program.

North Korea in recent months has conducted a nuclear test and test-fired an array of ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, with Washington leading the push to punish Pyongyang for its defiance.

It's only the second visit to Pyongyang by a former U.S. leader. Jimmy Carter traveled to North Korea for talks with Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 in a groundbreaking meeting during a time of similar tensions.

Though Clinton was in North Korea on a private basis, his visit was treated by North Korea as a high-profile visit, with senior officials -- including Kim Kye Gwan, the vice foreign minister who serves as the country's chief nuclear negotiator -- meeting him on the tarmac.

Footage from the APTN television news agency showed the arriving Clinton exchanging warm handshakes with the officials and accepting a bouquet of flowers from a schoolgirl.

Kim later hosted a banquet for Clinton at the state guesthouse, Radio Pyongyang and the Korean Central Broadcasting Station reported.

Photos in state-run media of the visit showed Kim, with a broad smile, standing next to a solemn-looking Clinton. The two also posed with Clinton's party in front of a mural, and another picture showed the men and others seated around a conference table.

Clinton's visit will "contribute to deepening the understanding" between North Korea and the U.S.," KCNA said.

The two nations fought against one another during the 1950-53 Korean War, and do not have diplomatic relations

Though Clinton does not hold office, his stature and good relations with Pyongyang had the potential to yield positive results, analysts said.

"This is a very potentially rewarding trip. Not only is it likely to resolve the case of the two American journalists detained in North Korea for many months, but it could be a very significant opening and breaking this downward cycle of tension and recrimination between the U.S. and North Korea," Mike Chinoy, author of "Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis," said in Beijing.

Clinton's administration had rocky but relatively good relations with Pyongyang, and both he and Gore, his vice president, had been named as possible envoys to bring back Lee and Ling. Also mentioned was New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who in the 1990s traveled twice to North Korea to secure the freedom of detained Americans.

However, the decision to send the former president was kept quiet. A senior U.S. official told reporters traveling Tuesday with Hillary Rodham Clinton that the White House would not comment on the trip to Pyongyang until the mission was complete.

"While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment," Gibbs, the White House spokesman, said in a statement from Washington. "We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton's mission."

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists, welcomed the Lee and Ling's release after more than four months of detention and praised Clinton's role in securing their freedom.

"This has been a long and complex process given the situation on the Korean peninsula. We thank former President Clinton for his intervention and we are grateful that the North Korean authorities have responded to appeals for clemency," said Deputy Director Robert Mahoney.

A Ling family friend in Sacramento, Marcus Marquez, said he was looking forward to seeing the women back in California.

He said family members had been keeping their hopes up and were heartened by vigils held on the journalists' behalf in San Francisco, Sacramento, Washington and other cities.

"I'm pretty sure they are not going to be fully relieved until they're in their arms," said Marquez, who went to high school with the Ling sisters in Carmichael, a Sacramento suburb, and now owns a popular Sacramento restaurant.

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Associated Press writers Jae-soon Chang in Seoul, Matthew Lee at Naval Station Rota, Spain, Don Thompson in Sacramento, Calif., and AP researcher Jasmine Zhao in Beijing contributed to this report.

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Statement from Ling and Lee Family:
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. We must also thank all the people who have supported our families through this ordeal, it has meant the world to us. We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms.
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Governor Schwarzenegger Issues Statement Applauding Pardon of California Journalists:
"Maria and I happily join all Californians in celebrating the pardon of Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Both women risked their lives to search for truth in an area of the world where the press is often censored, and I applaud those who worked to negotiate their pardon. Our heartfelt thoughts are with the families of Euna and Laura, and we wish them both a safe return to California."
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