Two U.S. journalists who were held for nearly five months in North Korea are back in the United States and have been reunited with their families, after former President Bill Clinton secured their release.
A plane carrying Laura Ling, Euna Lee and Mr. Clinton arrived in Burbank, California Wednesday. The former president had flown to North Korea, and met in Pyongyang Tuesday with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
The journalists and Mr. Clinton were greeted with cheers when they stepped off the plane. President Barack Obama said he is "extraordinarily relieved" over the release. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also welcomed the return of the women.
North Korea arrested Ling and Lee in March. A court later sentenced them to 12 years of hard labor for illegally crossing the border from China and committing "hostile acts."Speaking inside an airport hangar, Ling said she and Lee feared at any moment they would be sent to a labor camp. She said they were shocked when North Korean officials summoned them to a meeting where they saw Mr. Clinton. Ling said she knew then, as she put it, the nightmare was coming to an end.
North Korean state media say Mr. Kim pardoned the women after meeting with Mr. Clinton and receiving a "sincere apology" for their actions. But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the former president's wife, speaking in Nairobi, Kenya, denied that her husband apologized for Lee and Ling.
The two journalists were working on a story about North Korean refugees for U.S.-based Current TV, a news outlet co-founded by Al Gore, who was vice president in the Clinton administration. Gore was at the Burbank airport for the emotional reunion.
State-controlled media in North Korea say Mr. Clinton and Mr. Kim also discussed a "negotiated settlement" of broader issues between the two countries.
The White House says Mr. Clinton's mission was private, and that he undertook the trip at the request of the families of the journalists. Administration officials say Mr. Clinton did not discuss any issues beyond the women's release, including the stalled talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament.
Welcoming the release, U.N. Secretary-General Ban reiterated his hope that dialogue will soon resume between North Korea and the parties concerned toward resolving outstanding concerns, including the nuclear issue.
Tensions have risen recently over Pyongyang's nuclear test in May, and its test-firings of long- and short-range missiles. The nuclear test led to a United Nations resolution imposing a new series of tougher sanctions against North Korea.
In 2000, then-President Clinton dispatched his secretary of state, Madeline Albright, to North Korea for talks with Mr. Kim. Mr. Clinton is the second former U.S. president to travel to Pyongyang. Jimmy Carter visited in 1994, on a mission that led to an earlier accord on North Korea's nuclear program.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters