Tuesday, August 4, 2009
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has issued a special pardon to two detained US journalists.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee had been found guilty of entering illegally in March.
The news came hours after former US President Bill Clinton made an unannounced visit to Pyongyang on what was described as a private mission.
Mr Clinton has now flown out of North Korea with the two journalists on a plane bound for Los Angeles, his spokesman says.
Mr Clinton is the highest-profile American to visit since ex-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000.
"Kim Jong-il issued an order... granting a special pardon to the two American journalists who had been sentenced to hard labour," the official North Korean News Agency (KCNA) said in a statement.
The women's pardon and release was a sign of North Korea's "humanitarian and peace-loving policy", KCNA said.
The families of the two journalists said they were "overjoyed" by the news.
In a statement posted on a website, they thanked Mr Clinton and also former Vice-President Al Gore for their efforts to get the women released.
Washington had made no announcement of Mr Clinton's trip prior to his arrival on Tuesday, but later stressed it was a private visit.
However, media reports in Washington suggest the White House approved the mission and it had been secretly planned for weeks, our correspondent says.
State media said Bill Clinton and Kim Jong-il had wide-ranging talks
Mr Clinton had landed in Pyongyang in an unmarked plane and was greeted at the airport by North Korean officials.
KCNA said that Mr Clinton met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, although the White House denied its report that Mr Clinton had conveyed a message from US President Barack Obama.
US JOURNALISTS PARDONED
17 March: Euna Lee, left, and Laura Ling seized by North Korean border guards while reporting for California-based Current TV
8 June: Sentenced to 12 years in jail for "hostile acts" and illegal entry into North Korea
16 June: North Korea says journalists have "admitted and accepted" their guilt
10 July: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeals for an amnesty for the two
4 August: Former US President Bill Clinton arrives in Pyongyang and North Korea later announces the journalists will be pardoned
Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, had been found guilty of entering North Korea illegally across the Chinese border in March and were sentenced to 12 years' hard labour.
They were arrested by North Korean guards while filming a video about refugees for California-based internet broadcaster Current TV.
The White House has pressed for their release, and Mr Clinton's wife, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asked last month that they be granted amnesty.
Analysts say that Kim Jong-il is eager to improve relations with Washington as he prepares to name a successor.
President Kim is believed to have suffered a stroke a year ago and also has chronic diabetes and heart disease. Analysts say his third son is being lined up to succeed him.
Mr Clinton's visit came at a time of heightened tension between Washington and Pyongyang on North Korea's nuclear programme.
North Korea dropped out of six-party talks after the UN censured along-range missile test in April. The parties include Russia, China, Japan, the US and both Koreas.
An underground nuclear test and further missile tests followed, provoking new UN Security Council sanctions.