- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

UPDATED:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on Tuesday pardoned two U.S. journalists imprisoned there since March, according to the Associated Press.

The pardon and the journalists’ impending release was negotiated by former President Bill Clinton who arrived Tuesday to meet with Mr. Kim in a surprise mission to Pyongyang.

“Kim Jong-il issued an order of the chairman of the [North Korean] National Defense Commission on granting a special pardon to the two American journalists who had been sentenced to hard labor in accordance with Article 103 of the Socialist Constitution and releasing them,” the official KCNA news agency reported, according to the AP.

The journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were arrested March 17 near the Chinese border with communist North Korea while on assignment for a cable TV station.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Kim also exchanged a broad range of opinions on issues of mutual interest, according the official Korean Central News Agency.

The trip comes as North Korea continues to isolate itself from most of the world, conducting a nuclear test May 25, then test-firing ballistic missiles last month in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution.

However, the White House has not confirmed Mr. Clinton was delivering a message from President Obama.

“While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement. “We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton’s mission.”

Mr. Clinton’s was joined on the trip by John Podesta, a Clinton chief of staff and Obama adviser.

Mr. Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for months had called for the release of the two “on humanitarian grounds,” saying the charges were baseless. However, she changed her language July 10, asking the North Korean regime for “amnesty” for the women.

“The two journalists and their families have expressed great remorse for this incident,” she said at a town hall-style State Department meeting with employees, answering a question that some suggested was planted. “Everyone is very sorry that it happened. What we hope for now is that these two young women would be granted amnesty through the North Korean system and be allowed to return home to their families as soon as possible.”

The journalists were on assignment for Current TV, a cable outlet co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore. Last month, they were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for “committing hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry.”

The meeting ends weeks of speculation about Mr. Gore perhaps going to seek the release of Mrs. Ling, 32, and Mrs. Lee, 36. However, North Koreans apparently wanted someone of greater stature. Mr. Clinton had hoped to make an official visit to North Korea just before leaving office in late 2000, but in the end focused on an effort to secure a Middle East peace deal.

The meeting is Mr. Kim’s first with a U.S. political figure since reportedly having a stroke about a year ago. The time a former U.S. president went to North Korea was Jimmy Carter in 1994.

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