WASHINGTON — Two American journalists arrived on a chartered plane in Burbank, Calif., on Wednesday after North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, ordered them released during an extraordinary visit by former President Bill Clinton.
The journalists, Laura Ling, and Euna Lee, had been detained since March 17 when, according to North Korea, they crossed the country's border with China. In June, they were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry into the country and "hostile acts."
A senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under White House-imposed rules, said that Clinton's mission was strictly humanitarian, and no other concessions had been made to win the women's release.
However, the ailing Kim's gesture in pardoning the women was the latest in a series of signals he has sent recently that Pyongyang may be interested in resuming negotiations on its nuclear weapons. That's a turnabout after months of belligerent behavior, including an underground nuclear test and multiple missile launches.
Analysts said the arrival of the former president, which was carefully choreographed in weeks of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, allowed the image-conscious North Koreans to save face and pardon the women. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who's in Africa this week, had previously asked for "amnesty" for Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, implicitly acknowledging they were at fault.
In addition, the analysts said, North Korea may be feeling the pain of enhanced United Nations sanctions imposed in the aftermath of its spring launch of a long-range missile over Japan.
The senior U.S. official said that the first hint that a trip by Clinton might win the journalists' freedom came in mid-July, after the North Koreans began allowing Lee and Ling to call home. In one phone call to their families, the contents of which were relayed to the U.S. government, the two said that the North might give them amnesty and release them if Clinton were willing to come.
After that, the official said, White House aides talked to Clinton, who agreed to go if the mission were a purely humanitarian one, and got assurances from Pyongyang that his trip would win the journalists' release. As for nuclear dispute, "it was made crystal clear, the separation here," he said.
The release of the journalists is at least a temporary bit of good news for President Barack Obama, who's seen approval ratings dip as he struggles with a massive health care overhaul, a deep recession and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., welcomed the news. "I am grateful that this humanitarian gesture will allow them to begin a new chapter of their lives," she said in a statement. "I extend my deepest thanks and appreciation to President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and former President Bill Clinton for their quiet but persistent diplomacy, which made this day a reality."
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also applauded the release of Ling and Lee, who worked for San Francisco-based Current TV.
News of the pardon, which came from the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency, came after a meeting between Kim and Clinton, a rare encounter between the reclusive North Korean leader and a prominent Westerner.
The agency reported that Clinton had passed a message to Kim from Obama. The White House denied that, however, in one of its few public comments about the mission.
"That's not true," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
In a statement, Gibbs characterized the Clinton mission as "solely private."
Talks over North Korea's nuclear weapons stalled at the end of the Bush administration over differences on how to verify Pyongyang's written declaration of its nuclear program.
Relations turned tense after Obama's inauguration. North Korea launched a Taepodong-2 long-range missile in April, defying repeated warnings, and announced its second nuclear weapons test in May.
Retired ambassador Jack Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea, said the key question is what Kim told Clinton and his entourage about his willingness to resume negotiations.
"Will he reaffirm to Clinton that, yes, they're still prepared to move forward with denuclearization?" said Pritchard, the president of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute.
The North's state-run media said that Clinton and Kim, who's been ailing and is rarely seen in public, had an "exhaustive conversation," but provided no details.
Pritchard said there've been plentiful signs that North Korea is interested in talking. He speculated that the country's leaders may be feeling pressure from both the increased economic sanctions and Kim's failing health. The North Korean leader suffered a stroke last year, and has begun what could be a years-long campaign to arrange an eventual succession of power to his third son, Kim Jong Un.
Clinton, who arrived in Pyongyang late Monday Washington time, was met at the airport by Kim Kae Gwan, North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator. Clinton's delegation included John Podesta, his former chief of staff, and David Straub, a former top State Department official who specializes in Korean affairs.
Clinton's surprise visit came after weeks of back-channel negotiations, which intensified after the journalists' June conviction and sentencing, over which well-known American figure might help secure their freedom.
According to a U.S. official and an Asian diplomat, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because of the situation's sensitivity, the North Koreans handed the U.S. a list of potential high-level intermediaries they'd find acceptable.
While it wasn't clear exactly who was on the list, it apparently didn't include former Vice President Al Gore, who's a backer of Current TV, and whom senior administration officials discussed as a possible envoy to free the two journalists.
Other names discussed by Obama and his aides included New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who served as ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, and former president Jimmy Carter, who visited Pyongyang in 1994 to defuse a nuclear crisis.
Former President Clinton may have appealed to the prickly North Korean leadership for several reasons: He's a former president; his wife, Hillary Clinton, is secretary of state; and he almost became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Pyongyang in the last months of his tenure.
Clinton's visit was treated as a major event by the North Korean dictatorship and its state-controlled media.
The news agency said the Clinton-Kim meeting also was attended by North Korea's foreign minister and a senior member of the North Korea Worker's Party.
Afterward, it said, the powerful National Defense Commission, which oversees the country's military, hosted a dinner for Clinton at a state guest house.
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