Clinton, journalists return to US after pardon
Euna Lee and Laura Ling were granted a pardon by North Korea following rare talks between Clinton and the reclusive leader Kim Jong Il. They had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally.
The women, dressed in short-sleeved shirts and jeans, appeared healthy as they climbed the steps to the plane and shook hands with Clinton before getting into the jet, exclusive APTN footage from Pyongyang showed. Clinton waved, put his hand over his heart and then saluted.
North Korean state TV showed Clinton’s departure, and North Korean officials waving to the plane, but did not show images of the two journalists.
Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna said the flight was bound for Los Angeles, where the journalists will be reunited with their families.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hailed their release.
“I spoke to my husband on the airplane and everything went well,” she told reporters in Nairobi, Kenya. “They are extremely excited to be reunited soon when they touch down in California. It was just a good day to be able to see this happen.”
Ling’s father, Doug, told reporters outside his home in Carmichael, Calif., that his daughter’s release was one of the best days of his life. He said he would travel to the Burbank airport to meet his daughter’s plane early Wednesday, and planned to bring American flags, yellow ribbons and banners to welcome her home.
“I’m going to go down there and see my little girl,” he said.
Ling, a 32-year-old California native, is the younger sister of Lisa Ling, a correspondent for CNN as well as “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “National Geographic Explorer.” Lee, 36, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, is the mother of a 4-year-old.
Their expected arrival was a jubilant conclusion to a more than four-month ordeal for the women, who were arrested near the North Korean-Chinese border in March while on a reporting trip for Current TV, the media venture founded by former Vice President Al Gore.
Gore was expected to be at the Burbank airport to greet the women, who were sentenced in June for illegal entry and engaging in “hostile acts.”
Hillary Clinton had urged North Korea last month to grant them amnesty, saying they were remorseful and their families anguished.
The release also amounted to a successful diplomatic foray for the former president, who traveled as an unofficial envoy, with approval and coordination from the administration. He was uniquely positioned for it as the only recent president who had considered visiting North Korea while in office, and one who had sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.
But the backchannel genesis of the mission was not immediately clear, whether Obama called on him, North Korea asked for him or his wife suggested him.
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.
Hillary Clinton also rejected an official report by the North Korean news agency that said Bill Clinton had delivered an apology about the incident to the country’s ailing leader.
“That is not true,” she said. “That did not occur.”
A senior U.S. official said the reporters’ families and Gore asked the former president to travel to Pyongyang to seek their release and that Clinton’s mission did not include discussions about issues beyond that. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe events leading up to the Clinton trip and the women’s release.
The meeting also appeared aimed at 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. The meeting was Kim’s first with a prominent Western figure since the reported stroke.
Kim smiled broadly for a photo standing next to a towering Clinton. He was markedly thinner than a year ago, with his graying hair cropped short. The once-pudgy 67-year-old, who for decades had a noticeable pot belly, wore a khaki jumpsuit and appeared frail and diminutive in a group shot seated next to a robust Clinton.
Pardoning Ling and Lee and having Clinton serving as their emissary served both North Korea’s need to continue maintaining that the two women had committed a crime and the Obama administration’s desire not to expend diplomatic capital winning their freedom, said Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
“Nobody wanted this to be a distraction from the more substantially difficult issues we have with North Korea,” he said. “There was a desire by the administration to resolve this quietly and from the very beginning they didn’t allow it to become a huge public issue.”
Speaking out for the first time since their capture, Gore said in a joint statement with Current co-founder Joel Hyatt that everyone at the media outlet was overjoyed by the prospect of their safe return. “Our hearts go out to them and to their families for persevering through this horrible experience,” it said.
The Lee and Ling families thanked Obama, the secretary of state and the State Department.
“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,” it said. “We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms.”
In North Korea, Clinton was accorded honors typically reserved for heads of state. Senior officials met his private unmarked plane as it arrived Tuesday morning.
Video from the APTN television news agency showed Clinton exchanging warm handshakes with officials and accepting a bouquet of flowers from a schoolgirl.
Kim later hosted a banquet for Clinton at the state guesthouse, Radio Pyongyang and the Korean Central Broadcasting Station reported. The VIPs and Kim posed for a group shot in front of the same garish mural depicting a stormy seaside landscape that Albright posed for during her historic visit to Pyongyang in 2000.
However, the decision to send Clinton was kept quiet, revealed only when he turned up Tuesday in Pyongyang accompanied by John Podesta, his one-time White House chief of staff, who also is an informal adviser to Obama.
Discussions about normalizing ties with North Korea 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 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.
Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee in Seoul, South Korea, Anne Gearan and Steven R. Hurst in Washington, Lisa Leff in San Francisco, Tomoko A. Hosaka in Misawa, Japan, AP researcher Jasmine Zhao in Beijing and Matthew Lee in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.
Last updated: 11:13 am Thursday, December 13, 2012