Mission Accomplished: Clinton Leaves North Korea With Pardoned Journalists

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Bill Clinton has left North Korea with the two pardoned American journalists, a spokesman for the former president said Tuesday.

"President Clinton has safely left North Korea with Laura Ling and Euna Lee," Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna said in a statement. "They are en route to Los Angeles where Laura and Euna will be reunited with their families."

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, APTN footage in Pyongyang showed. Clinton waved, put his hand over his heart and then saluted.

North Korean officials waved as the plane took off.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il issued a "special pardon" for the reporters after Clinton made a surprise visit to the communist nation to negotiate their release Tuesday morning. 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.

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The White House has not been commenting on any aspect of the trip.

During the visit, Clinton met with Kim as well as the two reporters, who were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor after North Korea accused them of sneaking into the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts."

The public breakthrough in talks was reached in the course of a day. But sources said the framework for the journalists' release had been negotiated ahead of time.

Through a representative, the families of the reporters released a statement saying they were "overjoyed" at the news.

"We are so grateful to our government: President Obama, Secretary Clinton and the U.S. State Department for their dedication to and hard work on behalf of American citizens," the statement said. "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. We must also thank all the people who have supported our families through this ordeal, it has meant the world to us. We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms."

The official Korean Central News Agency earlier said in a brief dispatch that Clinton left North Korea with his party early Wednesday by plane after he negotiated for the release of two jailed American journalists.

But the news agency withdrew the report without citing a reason.

The White House is not yet offering details on the mission.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who was peppered with questions about the matter at the daily press briefing, said the main concern was for the safety of the journalists.

"I think we're obviously talking about something that's extremely sensitive," he said earlier. "We will have more to say on this hopefully later on."

Gibbs revealed little beyond the terse written statement his office put out Tuesday morning. The statement called Clinton's visit a "solely private mission" to secure the journalists' release and said the White House would not "jeopardize" his success by commenting.

Though analysts said Clinton must have coordinated closely with the administration, Gibbs denied a report in state media that said Clinton conveyed a verbal message to Kim from President Obama.

"That's not true," Gibbs said.

North Korea's state media said Kim and Clinton held "exhaustive" talks on a wide range of topics. Kim expressed his thanks, and engaged Clinton in a "wide-ranging exchange of views on matters of common concern," the official Korean Central News Agency said in a report from Pyongyang.

Clinton landed Tuesday morning in the North Korean capital in an unmarked jet. After greeting North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator and a high-ranking parliamentary official, he bowed and smiled as a young girl presented him with flowers, a red scarf tied around her neck, according to footage aired by television news agency APTN.

The unusually warm exchange Tuesday between officials from communist North Korea and the ex-leader of a wartime foe came amid heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over the regime's nuclear program. In recent months, North Korea has abandoned a disarmament pact, launched a long-range rocket, conducted a nuclear test and test-fired a barrage of ballistic missiles in defiance of the U.N. Security Council.

Clinton made the trip to secure the release of two reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's California-based Current TV media venture who were arrested along the North Korean-Chinese border in March.

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 U.S. and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations, but officials were believed to be working behind the scenes to negotiate their release.

Clinton, whose administration had relatively good relations with Pyongyang; Gore, his vice president; and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who in the 1990s traveled twice to North Korea to secure the freedom of detained Americans, had all been floated as possible envoys to bring back Lee and Ling.

However, the decision to send Clinton was kept quiet. A senior U.S. official later confirmed to reporters traveling to Africa with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the former president was in North Korea.

North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency announced Clinton's visit with a brief dispatch but did not say who he would be meeting during his trip.

But analysts said Kim Jong Il was eager to smooth over relations with Washington as he prepares to name a successor.

Kim, 67, reportedly is in ill health, suffering a stroke a year ago on top of chronic diabetes and heart disease. He rules the impoverished communist nation of 24 million with absolute authority, but has not publicly named the next leader. He is believed, however, to be grooming his third son, 26-year-old Jong Un, to take over.

Internal stability is key to a smooth transition, and establishing relations with Washington would be one way to rule out a threat from a superpower that has 28,500 troops stationed just on the other side of the border with South Korea, analysts said. The two Koreas remain technically at war because their three-year conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, in 1953.

Releasing the journalists would serve as a face-saving segue into talks, analysts said.

During a nuclear standoff with North Korean in 1994, former President Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang and met with leader Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il's late father. That visit, during Clinton's presidency, led to a breakthrough accord months later.

The last high-ranking U.S. official to meet with Kim Jong Il was Madeleine Albright, Clinton's secretary of state, who visited Pyongyang in 2000 at a time of warming relations. Ties turned frosty when George W. Bush took office in the White House in 2001.

Since Obama took office, Pyongyang has expressed interest in one-on-one negotiations with Washington. The latest provocations were seen in part as a way to draw a concerned U.S. into bilateral talks.

Washington says it is willing to hold such talks with the North, but only within the framework of international disarmament negotiations in place since 2003. Those talks involve China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia and the United States. North Korea has said it will never return to the six-nation disarmament process.

Lee and Ling were captured in North Korea's far northeast in the midst of the nuclear standoff. They had traveled to the border region in China to report on women and children defectors from North Korea.

Their families and U.S. officials had pushed for their release, noting that Ling has a medical condition and that Lee has a 4-year-old daughter.

Hillary Clinton had urged North Korea to grant them amnesty, saying the women were remorseful and their families anguished.

FOX News' Jennifer Griffin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.