WASHINGTON—North Korea has issued a "special pardon" to two detained U.S. journalists following a visit by former U.S. President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang, according to North Korean media reports.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years' hard labor by a Pyongyang court in June. The pair admitted violating North Korean law in an attempt to shoot television footage relating to North Korean refugees in China.
They were on assignment for San Francisco-based Current TV, a cable channel co-founded by Clinton's former vice president Al Gore. They were detained March 17 for allegedly crossing the border from China and committing "hostile actions" against the country.
Michael Saldate, Lee's husband, and Mary Wang, Ling's mother, reached by phone, both declined to comment in detail on news of the pardon.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called the pardons an example of North Korea's "humanitarian and peace-loving policy." KCNA also said Clinton had brought a verbal message from U.S. President Barack Obama, but the White House denied that report.
Clinton had an "exhaustive conversation" and "wide-ranging exchange of views on the matters of common concern" over dinner with the ailing North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, and top North Korean officials, it said.
The former U.S. president arrived in an unmarked jet and was presented with flowers by a girl dressed in traditional costume before he was led to a black limousine and driven away.
Clinton's trip followed months of military provocations by the impoverished North, which has turned its back on negotiations with regional powers, including the United States and China, to convince it to give up ambitions to build an atomic arsenal.
New channel of communication
Among those who greeted Clinton was North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, fuelling speculation of ancillary progress in stalled talks aimed at securing a freeze in Pyongyang's nuclear program.
He was also greeted by Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, and Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, the official Xinhua Chinese news agency reported. Security was tight around the airport.
The Obama administration has had back-channel talks with North Korea for several weeks over sending an envoy to resolve the situation, according to U.S. officials.
Clinton left the airport without talking to reporters after a brief greeting ceremony, Xinhua said.
Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy at the Asia Foundation in Washington, said the visit opens a channel through which authoritative messages can be delivered regarding U.S. expectations for future relations with North Korea.
"Even if it is a private visit with a humanitarian purpose, former president Clinton is uniquely placed to provide the North Koreans with a clear understanding of the conditions and parameters under which the U.S.-DPRK relationship might go forward," Snyder said.
He expects any message would convey the importance of a denuclearized North Korea as the basis for any improved political relationship between the two countries going forward, and that any continued nuclear activity would be met with the continued implementation of UN sanctions under Security Council Resolution 1874.
But Snyder also suggested that Clinton's visit could have a negative effect on relations between the two Koreas.
"North Korea's release of the two American journalists without the accompanying release of a South Korean employee of Hyundai Asan at the Kaesong Industrial Complex may put additional political pressure on South Korea's president Lee Myung-bak at a sensitive point in inter-Korean negotiations over the future of the complex," he said.
The South Korean employee was detained by North Korean authorities at the jointly operated complex on March 30 for allegedly encouraging North Koreans to defect and criticizing the communist regime.
Pyongyang has never had diplomatic relations with Washington.
Clinton is the highest-profile American to visit North Korea after his own secretary of state Madeleine Albright met supreme leader Kim Jong Il in 2000.
He is the second former U.S. President to do so after Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang in 1994.
The Clinton administration brokered a 1994 deal for North Korea to shut down a plutonium-based nuclear reactor at its Yongbyon facility, but relations have soured since.
After former U.S. President George W. Bush accused the North Koreans of secretly continuing a uranium enrichment plan, the country's leadership restarted the reactor and according to some estimates may have since produced enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons.
Shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama took office earlier this year, North Korea test-fired several missiles and conducted its second underground test of a nuclear device, further straining relations.
Sanctions initiated through the U.N. Security Council in response to the tests, and backed by U.S. officials, saw North Korea vow to end negotiations on nuclear disarmament through six-nation talks.
Last week the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is "by no means intelligent" after making "vulgar remarks" about North Korea's provocative actions.
Original reporting by RFA's Korean service. Written for English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.