, SEOUL, Aug 5 – Former president Bill Clinton flew home from North Korea Wednesday after winning the release of two US journalists, as the hardline communist state savoured its highest-level American visit in a decade.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who faced 12 years’ hard labour before they were pardoned by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, were instead headed for a reunion with overjoyed family members following Clinton’s surprise mission.
Clinton’s plane was expected to reach Los Angeles early Wednesday local time. A senior US official said the journalists were in "very good health" after almost five months in detention.
"We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms," relatives said in a statement thanking the former US leader.
Despite months of high tensions sparked by the North’s latest nuclear and missile tests and United Nations sanctions, Clinton received a warm and well publicised welcome Tuesday.
"Leading papers today carry a photo-accompanied report that leader Kim Jong-Il met with former US President Bill Clinton on a visit to the DPRK (North Korea)," the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
The press also publicised a dinner in Clinton’s honour, which according to KCNA "proceeded in a cordial atmosphere."
Striking a markedly positive tone, the agency said Clinton’s meetings "reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement" of issues dividing the two countries.
It said the visit would "contribute to deepening the understanding between the DPRK and the US and building the bilateral confidence."
TV journalists Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, were arrested in March while reporting near North Korea’s border with China. They were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labour for illegal entry and "hostile acts."
Kim agreed to pardon the reporters after Clinton "expressed words of sincere apology" for their "hostile acts", KCNA reported late Tuesday.
After Kim granted his special pardon, Clinton "courteously conveyed a verbal message of US President Barack Obama expressing profound thanks for this and reflecting views on ways of improving the relations between the two countries," the agency said.
The White House portrayed the mission as a purely private one and denied there was any message from Obama. A senior US official said separately that Clinton had offered no such apology.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wife of the former leader, said during a visit to Africa she was "very happy and relieved" the reporters had been freed.
"The measure taken to release the American journalists is a manifestation of the DPRK’s humanitarian and peace-loving policy," KCNA added.
Clinton sent his own secretary of state Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000 for a meeting with leader Kim.
The harsh sentences on the reporters had soured relations already strained by the North’s atomic test in May, multiple missile launches and its decision to quit six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.
US and South Korean officials say Kim, 67, is staging a show of strength while he puts in place a succession plan involving his youngest son.
Kim reportedly suffered a stroke last August and appears notably older, thinner and frailer in recent photos — including those taken with Clinton.
Seoul analysts said Kim’s regime is clearly milking the trip for propaganda purposes, but the visit could also pave the way for bilateral dialogue and an easing of tensions.
"This is a win-win game," said Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank, noting the US secured freedom for its reporters while Kim proved he is still in control despite his health problems.
"North Korea has no more cards left to play after its nuclear test and missile launches," Cheong told AFP. "It may think it’s time to come out for dialogue, and Clinton’s trip was timely.
"Both sides may have reached a consensus that tensions should not escalate further."
Dongguk University professor Koh Yu-Hwan called the outcome of the trip "generally positive" for both sides, even though North Korea gained more "by using it for political propaganda."
China, the North’s closest ally, welcomed the reporters’ release.
"The relevant issue has had an appropriate solution. We welcome this," the foreign ministry said in a statement.