Two U.S. journalists who were held for nearly five months in North Korea are back in the United States, after former President Bill Clinton secured their release.
A plane carrying Laura Ling, Euna Lee and former President Clinton arrived in Burbank, California this morning. Mr. Clinton had flown to Pyongyang to meet directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
The journalists and the former president were greeted by cheers when they stepped off the plane. President Barack Obama said he is “extraordinarily relieved” over the release. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the return of the women.
North Korea arrested Ling and Lee in March. A court later sentenced them to 12 years of hard labor for illegally crossing the border from China and committing “hostile acts.”
North Korean state media say Mr. Kim pardoned the women after meeting with Mr. Clinton and receiving a “sincere apology” for their actions.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the former president’s wife, speaking in Nairobi, Kenya, denied that her husband apologized for Lee and Ling.
The two journalists were working on a story about North Korean refugees for U.S.-based Current TV, a news outlet co-founded by Al Gore, who was vice president in the Clinton administration. Gore greeted the journalists and Mr. Clinton at the airport.
State-controlled media in North Korea say Mr. Clinton and Mr. Kim also discussed a “negotiated settlement” of broader issues between the two countries.
The White House says Mr. Clinton’s mission was private, and that he undertook the trip at the request of the families of the journalists. The plane was paid for by a Hollywood producer, Steve Bing. Administration officials say Mr. Clinton did not discuss any issues beyond the women’s release, including the stalled talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament.
Welcoming the release, U.N. Secretary-General Ban reiterated his hope that dialogue will soon resume between North Korea and the parties concerned toward resolving outstanding concerns, including the nuclear issue.
Tensions have risen recently over Pyongyang’s nuclear test in May, and its test-firings of long- and short-range missiles. The nuclear test led to a United Nations resolution imposing a new series of tougher sanctions against North Korea.
As president, Mr. Clinton dispatched his secretary of state, Madeline Albright, to North Korea in 2000 for talks with Mr. Kim. Mr. Clinton is the second former U.S. president to travel to Pyongyang. Jimmy Carter visited in 1994, on a mission that led to an earlier accord on North Korea’s nuclear program.