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We have a real hero in our country, his name is William Jefferson Clinton

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By JEAN H. LEE, Associated Press Writer Jean H. Lee, Associated Press Writer 11 mins ago

SEOUL, South Korea – Former President Bill Clinton brought two freed U.S. journalists out of North Korea early Wednesday following rare talks with reclusive leader Kim Jong Il, who pardoned the women sentenced to hard labor for entering the country illegally.

Euna Lee and Laura Ling were heading back to the U.S. with Clinton, his spokesman Matt McKenna said, less than 24 hours after the former U.S. leader landed in the North Korean capital on a private, humanitarian trip to secure their release.

The women, dressed in short-sleeved shirts and jeans, appeared healthy as they climbed the steps to the plane and shook hands with Clinton before getting into the jet, APTN footage in Pyongyang showed. Clinton waved, put his hand over his heart and then saluted.

North Korean officials waved as the plane took off. McKenna said the flight was bound for Los Angeles, where the journalists will be reunited with their families. The White House had no comment.

Their departure was a jubilant conclusion to a more than four-month ordeal for the women arrested near the North Korean-Chinese border in March while on a reporting trip for Current TV, the media venture founded by former Vice President Al Gore. They were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry and engaging in “hostile acts.”

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had urged North Korea last month to grant them amnesty, saying they were remorseful and their families anguished.

North Korean media characterized the women’s release as proof of “humanitarian and peace-loving policy.”

Their families said they were “overjoyed” by the pardon. Lee, 36, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, is the mother of a 4-year-old. Ling, a 32-year-old California native, is the younger sister of Lisa Ling, a correspondent for CNN as well as “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “National Geographic Explorer.”

Clinton’s landmark trip to Pyongyang also resulted in rare talks with reclusive Kim Jong Il that state-run media described as “wide-ranging” and “exhaustive.” The meeting was Kim’s first with a prominent Western figure since reportedly suffering a stroke nearly a year ago.

While the White House emphasized the private nature of Clinton’s trip, his landmark visit to Pyongyang to free the Americans was a coup that came at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program.

State media said Clinton apologized on behalf of the women and relayed President Barack Obama‘s gratitude. The report said the visit would “contribute to deepening the understanding” between North Korea and the United States.

The meeting also appeared aimed at dispelling persistent questions about the health of the authoritarian North Korean leader, who was said to be suffering from chronic diabetes and heart disease before the reported stroke.

Kim smiled broadly for a photo standing next to a towering Clinton. He was markedly thinner than a year ago, with his graying hair cropped short. The once-pudgy 67-year-old, who for decades had a noticeable pot belly, wore a khaki jumpsuit and appeared frail and diminutive in a group shot seated next to a robust Clinton.

The journalists’ release followed weeks of quiet negotiations between the State Department and the North Korean mission to the United Nations, said Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Clinton “didn’t go to negotiate this, he went to reap the fruits of the negotiation,” Sneider said.

Pardoning Ling and Lee and having Clinton serving as their emissary served both North Korea’s need to continue maintaining that the two women had committed a crime and the Obama administration’s desire not to expend diplomatic capital winning their freedom, Sneider said.

“Nobody wanted this to be a distraction from the more substantially difficult issues we have with North Korea,” he said. “There was a desire by the administration to resolve this quietly and from the very beginning they didn’t allow it to become a huge public issue.”

Speaking out for the first time since their capture, Gore said in a joint statement with Current co-founder Joel Hyatt that everyone at the media outlet was overjoyed by the prospect of their safe return. “Our hearts go out to them and to their families for persevering through this horrible experience,” it said.

The Lee and Ling families thanked Obama, the secretary of state and the State Department.

“We especially want to thank President Bill Clinton for taking on such an arduous mission and Vice President Al Gore for his tireless efforts to bring Laura and Euna home,” it said. “We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists also welcomed their release.

In North Korea, Clinton was accorded honors typically reserved for heads of state. Senior officials, led by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, who also serves as the regime’s chief nuclear negotiator, met his private unmarked plane as it arrived Tuesday morning.

Video from the APTN television news agency showed Clinton exchanging warm handshakes with officials and accepting a bouquet of flowers from a schoolgirl.

Kim later hosted a banquet for Clinton at the state guesthouse, Radio Pyongyang and the Korean Central Broadcasting Station reported. The VIPs and Kim posed for a group shot in front of the same garish mural depicting a stormy seaside landscape that Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, posed for during her historic visit to Pyongyang in 2000.

North Korean state media said Clinton and Kim held wide-ranging talks, adding that Clinton “courteously” conveyed a verbal message from Obama.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs denied Clinton went with a message from Obama. “That’s not true,” he told reporters.

___

Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Washington, Samantha Young in Sacramento, Calif., Lisa Leff in San Francisco and AP researcher Jasmine Zhao in Beijing contributed to this report.

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August 5, 2009 - Posted by | Politics |

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