By Jean H. Lee
The Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il issued a “special pardon” freeing two jailed American journalists after talks with former U.S. President Bill Clinton, North Korea’s official news agency announced on Wednesday, Aug. 4.
Clinton, who arrived in North Korea Tuesday on an unannounced visit, met with the reclusive and ailing Kim for talks described by Pyongyang as “exhaustive.” It was Kim’s first meeting with a prominent Western figure since his reported stroke nearly a year ago.
The release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested March 17 near the China-North Korea border, was a sign of North Korea’s “humanitarian and peace-loving policy,” the Korean Central News Agency reported.
State media said Clinton apologized on behalf of the women and relayed President Barack Obama’s gratitude.
The report said the visit would “contribute to deepening the understanding” between North Korea and the U.S.
U.S. officials said there was no indication that Clinton’s private plane has departed Pyongyang. The U.S. officials, who described the sensitive schedule on condition of anonymity, said Clinton’s mission was expected to wrap up in the morning in Pyongyang — early evening EDT — and that he hoped to bring the two journalists with him.
While the White House emphasized the private nature of Clinton’s trip, his landmark visit to Pyongyang to free the Americans was a coup that came at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program.
The meeting also appeared to aim at the dispelling persistent questions about the health of the authoritarian North Korean leader, who was said to be suffering from chronic diabetes and heart disease before the reported stroke.
North Korean officials accused Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, both of former Vice President Al Gore’s Current TV media venture, of sneaking into the country illegally in March and engaging in unspecified “hostile acts.” The nation’s top court sentenced them in June to 12 years of hard labor.
The journalists’ release followed weeks of quiet negotiations between the State Department and the North Korean mission to the United Nations, said Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
The families of Ling and Lee said they were “overjoyed” by the 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,” the families said in a statement. “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 are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms,”
Lee, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, is the mother of a 4-year-old. Ling, a California native, is the younger sister of Lisa Ling and a correspondent for CNN. They were arrested as they reported about the trafficking of women. It’s unclear if they strayed into the North or were grabbed by aggressive border guards who crossed into China, but recent statements suggested that they admitted to deliberately crossing into the country.
North Korean state media said Clinton and Kim held wide-ranging talks, adding that Clinton “courteously” conveyed a verbal message from Obama. In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denied Clinton went with a message from Obama. “That’s not true,” he told reporters.
Clinton was accompanied by John Podesta, his one-time White House chief of staff, who also is an informal adviser to Obama.
Clinton is relatively well-regarded in North Korea, mostly for his less-bellicose attitude toward the country during his administration.
In the past, envoys have been dispatched to Pyongyang to secure the release of Americans. In the 1990s, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a congressman at the time, went twice on similar missions: in 1994 to arrange the freedom of a U.S. pilot whose helicopter strayed into North Korean airspace and again, two years later, to fetch an American detained for three months on spying charges.
Richardson, Clinton, and Gore, Clinton’s vice president, had all been named as possible envoys to bring back Lee and Ling. However, the decision to send Clinton was kept quiet and was revealed only when he turned up Tuesday in Pyongyang.
Discussions about normalizing ties went dead when George W. Bush took office in 2001 with a hard-line policy on Pyongyang. The Obama administration has expressed a willingness to hold bilateral talks — but only within the framework of the six-nation disarmament talks in place since 2003.
North Korea announced earlier this year that it was abandoning the talks involving the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, China, and the U.S. The regime also launched a long-range rocket, conducted a nuclear test, test-fired a barrage of ballistic missiles, and restarted its atomic program in defiance of international criticism and the U.N. Security Council.
Kim inherited leadership of impoverished North Korea upon his father’s death in 1994, 20 years after being anointed the heir apparent. Kim has not publicly named his successor but it is believed that he’s grooming his third son, 26-year-old Jong Un, to take over. ♦
Associated Press writers Jae-soon Chang, Matthew Lee, Anne Gearan, Samantha Young, Lisa Leff, and AP researcher Jasmine Zhao contributed to this report.