Former US President Bill Clinton arrived on Wednesday after a dramatic visit to North Korea. In the 20 hours he was there, he won the freedom of two American journalists, opened a diplomatic channel to the North’s reclusive government and dined with its ailing leader Kim Jong-il.
Laura Ling (32) and Euna Lee (36) stepped off the plane in Burbank, California, and rushed to their families. Clinton embraced Al Gore, founder of Current TV, which employs the journalists.
“Thirty hours ago, Euna and I were prisoners,” Ling said. “Then suddenly we were told we were going to a meeting… When we walked through the doors, we saw Bill Clinton… We knew instantly the nightmare was finally coming to an end.”
North Korea, which in June had sentenced the women to 12 years hard labour for illegally entering its territory, announced that it had pardoned the women after Clinton had apologised to Kim for their actions, the North Korean state media said.
But US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied her husband had apologised.
President Barack Obama said: “I want to thank President Bill Clinton… for the extraordinary humanitarian effort.”
Clinton's mission to Pyongyang was the most visible by an American in nearly a decade. It came at a time when the US's relationship with North Korea has become chilled, after the latter's test of its second nuclear device in May.
It ended a harrowing ordeal for the two women, who were stopped on March 17 by soldiers near North Korea's border with China while researching a report on women and human trafficking.
And it catapulted Clinton back on to the global stage.
Hillary Clinton, who is in Kenya, said her husband's visit was all about the captured Americans and had nothing to do with the US dispute with North Korea over its nuclear programme. "The future of the US's relationship with Pyongyang," she said, was "really up to them".
As president, Clinton had sent Kim a letter of condolence on the death of his father, Kim Il-sung. For Kim, freeing the women was reportedly a "reciprocal humanitarian gesture".
The families of Ling and Lee said they were "overjoyed". "We especially want to thank President Bill Clinton for taking on such an arduous mission and Vice-President Gore for his tireless efforts to bring Laura and Euna home," a statement said.
North Korea, seeing a propaganda opportunity at home and a rare chance for a measure of favorable publicity abroad, welcomed Clinton with the fanfare of a state visit.