WASHINGTON—The United States said Wednesday it was “enormously pleased” with the release of two television journalists by North Korea following a visit by former President Bill Clinton, as friends and family welcomed the women’s return.
“We are obviously extraordinarily relieved,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement in which he thanked Clinton for his “humanitarian” effort on behalf of Laura Ling and Euna Lee. “I had an opportunity to speak with the families yesterday once we knew that they were on the plane.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the White House was “enormously pleased,” as the pair was getting off a private plane near Los Angeles after returning with Clinton.
Clinton will fill in Obama's national security team on his trip as a private envoy to Pyongyang for talks with North Korea's ailing leader Kim Jong Il, Gibbs said.
Speaking to reporters in Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington regarded the issue of the two reporters as "totally separate...from our efforts to reengage the North Koreans and have them return to the six-party talks" on neutralizing Pyongyang's nuclear program.
"As I said in a long set of remarks in Thailand about two weeks ago, the future of our relationships with the North Koreans are really up to them," Clinton said. "They have a choice."
'A wonderful ending'“What a wonderful ending. It’s what we have been waiting for,” Liao Qinhe, a close friend of Ling’s family, said in an interview
Mary Ling, Ling’s mother, called the women’s return home “great news,” but she declined to comment in detail.
Mary Ling “was devastated and worried that her daughter was going to
suffer,” Liao said. “It’s been almost five months. It’s been
agonizingly painful for the family, especially the mom. She wept at
every candlelight vigil. We were all concerned how much longer she
would last. Thank God for the good news.”
Ling and Lee were sentenced to 12 years' hard labor by a Pyongyang court in June. They had 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.
They landed at Burbank airport in Los Angeles shortly before 6 a.m. (1300 GMT) Wednesday.
On landing, Ling described their surprise at being taken to a meeting in North Korea to find Clinton standing in the room.
"We were shocked. But we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end," she said. "The past 140 days have been the most difficult and heart-wrenching times of our lives.”
North Korean media played up Clinton's visit, carrying photos of the former president meeting with leader Kim Jong Il and publicizing a dinner held in his honor.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Kim had issued the pardon after Clinton "expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong Il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists" against North Korea.
U.S. officials on Tuesday denied that any apology was offered.
Washington called the mission a private one and denied reports in the North Korean media that Clinton had conveyed a message from the Obama administration.
KCNA said meetings during Clinton's visit resulted in "candid and in-depth discussions on the pending issues" between North Korea and the U.S. and "reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement."
The report added that the visit would "contribute to deepening the understanding" between the two countries and to "building the bilateral confidence."
The harsh sentences handed down to the reporters further strained relations between the two countries following a North Korean atomic test in May, several missile launches, and the Pyongyang's decision to end negotiations for nuclear disarmament through six-nation talks.
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.
Clinton's 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 Obama took office 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 and by Xiao Rong for RFA's Mandarin service. Korean service director: Insop Han. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou.