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Bill Clinton wins scribes' freedom from N Korea

world Updated: Aug 05, 2009 02:22 IST
Bill Clinton wins scribes' freedom from N Korea

Former president Bill Clinton on Wednesday secured the release of two female US journalists jailed in North Korea after a surprise mercy dash to meet veteran communist leader Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang.

North Korea said Clinton delivered a special message to Kim from US President Barack Obama during his historic trip, which followed acute tensions over the North's nuclear and missile tests, but the White House denied this.

Kim agreed to pardon TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee after Clinton "expressed words of sincere apology" for their "hostile acts", the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.

After Kim issued his 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 measure taken to release the American journalists is a manifestation of the DPRK's (North Korea's) humanitarian and peace-loving policy," KCNA added.

It said the Pyongyang meetings, which included a dinner in honour of Clinton, "reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement" of "pending issues" dividing the United States and North Korea.

The agency said the former president's visit would "contribute to deepening the understanding between the DPRK and the US and building the bilateral confidence".

KCNA did not indicate when the women would be freed but said Clinton's visit would end Wednesday.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, asked earlier about the reported delivery of a message from Obama, said: "That's not true."

Refusing to comment on the visit, Gibbs added in a statement: "We do not want to jeopardise the success of former president Clinton's mission."

The US television network ABC said Clinton had met Ling, 32, and Lee, 36. It described the meeting as "very emotional" and said the pair could be back in the United States on Wednesday.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency also said Clinton was expected to fly out Wednesday with Ling and Lee, who were arrested in March while reporting near North Korea's border with China and sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labour.

Earlier Tuesday the North sent two senior officials -- and a schoolgirl with a floral bouquet -- to greet Clinton at Pyongyang's Sunan airport as he disembarked from a chartered plane.

Analysts said the warm reception indicated Pyongyang wanted better relations with Washington, which is pushing for strict enforcement of UN sanctions aimed at shutting down the North's nuclear and missile programmes.

Clinton, who sent his own secretary of state Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000, was greeted by chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-Gwan and Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of parliament.

He bent down to shake hands with the bouquet-bearing girl, the North's TV footage showed.

North Korea "was sending a signal that it was treating the former US leader with great hospitality and also that it was willing to have a political dialogue, including on nuclear disarmament", said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

The two journalists' families and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the ex-president's wife, had appealed for their release on humanitarian grounds.

The harsh sentences given to them soured relations already strained by the North's atomic test in May -- its second in three years -- and by its multiple missile tests and its decision to quit six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.

But Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank said the North was seeking a breakthrough in relations by allowing the former president's visit.

"It will also be used for domestic propaganda as it comes amid growing concerns about Kim's health," Cheong told AFP.
US and South Korean officials say the North's recent hardline behaviour is aimed at shoring up the authority of Kim, 67, while he puts in place a succession plan involving his youngest son.

Kim is reported to be in ill health after a stroke last year.