5 Aug 2009

Clinton leaves North Korea with freed journalists

5:14 pm on 5 August 2009

Former United States President Bill Clinton has left North Korea with two American reporters whose release he has helped to secure.

His spokesperson said they were flying to Los Angeles where the journalists would reunite with their families, the BBC reports.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il issued a special pardon to the journalists after meeting Mr Clinton on Tuesday.

Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, were found guilty of entering illegally in March and sentenced to 12 years in prison. They have spent more than 20 weeks in custody before being released.

Mr Clinton offered no apology for the reporters' conduct, a US official said.

The senior US administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said the two reporters were in "very good health" and that North Korean government had agreed in advance that Mr Clinton's mission would not touch on the question of its nuclear programme.

Pyongyang dropped out of six-party talks after the United Nations censured along-range missile test in April. The parties include Russia, China, Japan, the US and both Koreas.

An underground nuclear test and further missile tests followed, provoking new UN Security Council sanctions.

Mr Clinton's unannounced visit to Pyongyang was described as a private mission. He was the highest-profile American to visit the reclusive Communist state since former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000.

After leaving Pyongyang, the plane with Mr Clinton and the two reporters landed at a US military base in northern Japan for refuelling, Japan's NHK broadcaster said. The chartered jet later departed for Los Angeles.

The families of the journalists said they were "overjoyed" by the news.

In a statement posted on a website, they thanked Mr Clinton and also former Vice-President Al Gore for their efforts to get the women released.

President Barack Obama has telephoned the journalists' families to express relief at their return from North Korea.