North Korea Pardons Two Jailed Journalists After Bill Clinton's Visit

Euna Lee and Laura Ling Could Board a Plane Back for U.S. as Early as Tonight, Sources Say

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has issued a "special pardon" to two American journalists convicted of sneaking into the country illegally, and he ordered them released during a visit by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, North Korean media reported Tuesday.

The release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee was a sign of North Korea's "humanitarian and peaceloving policy," the Korean Central News Agency reported.

Clinton, who arrived in North Korea earlier in the day on an unannounced visit, met with the reclusive and ailing Kim — his first meeting with a prominent Western figure since his reported stroke nearly a year ago.

North Korea accused Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, of sneaking into the country illegally in March and engaging in "hostile acts," and the nation's top court sentenced them in June to 12 years of hard labor.

From an ABC article:

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il pardoned today two jailed U.S. journalists , Laura Ling and Euna Lee, just hours after former President Bill Clinton arrived in the country to press for their release.

The pardons were announced by North Korea's state-run news agency, The Associated Press reported.

Clinton, who took a surprise trip to the country to negotiate the release of the two journalists, met with them earlier in what was a very emotional meeting, a government source told ABC News.

The source, who has knowledge of the Clinton team's mission, was hopeful that the two will leave North Korea tonight for the United States, possibly even on the same plane as Clinton.

Clinton arrived in Pyongyang early Tuesday and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to talk about the two journalists, who were arrested after straying into the country while they were reporting on the Chinese-North Korean border. Ling and Lee were later convicted and sentenced to 12 years hard labor.

The White House today had little to say about the former president's visit except to stress that this is a "private mission."

"It's a little sensitive," said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. "We will have more to say on this hopefully later on."

Gibbs denied reports by North Korea's state media that Clinton carried a message from President Obama to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. The Korean Central News Agency said that Clinton 'courteously' conveyed a verbal message from Obama, and that Kim expressed thanks and engaged in "sincere talks" with Clinton. The defense ministry hosted a banquet at the state VIP house for the former president, according to North Korea's state media.

"While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment. We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton's mission," Gibbs said in a statement released earlier toady.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, en route to Africa on a state trip, would not comment until her husband's mission was complete, a senior U.S. official told reporters.

Arriving at Pyongyang in a specially chartered, unmarked jet, Clinton was greeted warmly by a young girl bearing flowers and top North Korean officials, including chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kyegwan.

Sources told ABC News that Clinton's trip, while a surprise to some, was planned weeks ago and that it was former Vice President Al Gore who asked Clinton to go. Clinton was accompanied by his former Chief of Staff, John Podesta, who officials said was also involved in the planning.

A senior U.S. official told ABC News that "while mission is in progress, we will have no comment. Our interest is the safe return of the journalists."

Clinton's trip fulfills one of North Korea's two demands -- a visit from a high-profile emissary. As former president and husband of the current secretary of state, there could be few people of higher profile, and Gore founded Current TV, where the two journalists worked.

North Korea's second demand -- an apology -- was fulfilled by Hillary Clinton just a few weeks ago.

"The young women themselves have, apparently, admitted that they probably did trespass, so they are deeply regretful and we are very sorry it's happened," the former first lady said in an interview with ABC News last month. "Our most important goal is to make sure they get home safe."

Hillary Clinton's words were a clear departure from the administration's early rhetoric, and she also acknowledged that the State Department changed its approach in trying to free the two journalists. In June, she told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that the charges against Lee and Ling were "absolutely without merit or foundation."

One thing about Clinton's trip is clear: He would not have gone to North Korea unless he was certain he would be coming back with the two journalists.


Laura Ling and Euna Lee

Ling and Lee were detained by North Korea in March for illegally entering the country. At the time, they were working on a story about human trafficking for Current TV along the Chinese-North Korean border. The two admitted crossing the border illegally and apologized.

But in June, Ling and Lee were found guilty of "hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry" and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor by North Korea's highest Central Court.

Many feared that the two would be used as bargaining chips by North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions remain undeterred despite tougher sanctions and stern rhetoric.

The U.S. has repeatedly requested amnesty for the women, and the Obama administration considered for weeks whether to send a special envoy to the communist state. But the negotiation had been drifting while North Korea ran a string of nuclear and missile tests in defiance of United Nations resolutions.

Ling's sister, National Geographic contributor Lisa Ling, expressed her concern to ABC in an interview with "Good Morning America" in June.

"She has a recurring ulcer," Lisa Ling said. "And we know that she has been allowed to receive some medication. But we, we know that her doctor is very concerned. He has written a letter, appealing to the North Korean government to at least allow her to see a physician. And as we all know, ulcers are exacerbated by stress."

Lee's husband, Michael Saldate, left to take care of the couple's 4-year-old daughter, said he has told his daughter Hannah only that her mother is at work.

Earlier this summer, Lisa Ling told ABC News' Bob Woodruff that she dreamed of the moment of her sister's release.

"It's a scene that I've kind of replayed over and over in my head. I just hope it comes soon," an emotional Ling said.

And that hope may soon turn into reality. U.S. government officials now say that the journalists could be released within days.

"For North Koreans, pride and saving face is very important," said Yoo Ho-Yeol, professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University in Seoul. "So if an American president who is favorable to North Korea personally flies to Pyongyang and ask for amnesty, that's a good enough reason to let the women go."

Clinton would be the second former U.S. president, after President Carter, to visit the reclusive communist state. Carter traveled to Pyongyang in 1994, when Clinton was in office, and met with then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, father of the current leader Kim Jong-Il.

Carter's visit led to a breakthrough deal in which North Korea was to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for oil. The deal -- the so-called 'Agreed Framework' -- fell apart after President George W. Bush listed North Korea as part of the 'axis of evil'.

Clinton was widely expected to make a state visit to Pyongyang during his time in office, but it never happened, as his administration at the time chose to focus on Middle East issues.


Bill Clinton is THE MAN.