Bill Clinton meets Kim Jong-il and two jailed US journalists

Former US President Bill Clinton talked with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during a visit to Pyongyang to obtain the release of two female US journalists, whom he later met. It is the highest-profile US visit to Pyongyang in nearly a decade.


Former US president Bill Clinton on Tuesday met North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il for "exhaustive" talks during a surprise mercy mission to Pyongyang to win the release of two jailed female US journalists. He then met the journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee,  ABC News reported.

Citing a government source, the US television network described the meeting between Clinton and the detained reporters -- who were sentenced in June to 12 years in a labor camp for an illegal border crossing -- as "very emotional."

The source, familiar with Clinton's efforts in Pyongyang, was hopeful Ling and Lee would be back in the United States on Wednesday, ABC said. Clinton was expected to leave North Korea later Tuesday.

The White House, which described the trip as a "solely private mission" for Clinton, has kept mostly mum on the mission, as the former US president held surprise mercy talks with reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency said Kim welcomed Clinton's visit and had "an exhaustive conversation with him."

Washington denied earlier North Korean reports that Clinton had delivered a verbal message to Kim from current US President Barack Obama as part of his historic foray, the highest-profile visit by an American to Pyongyang for nearly a decade.

Clinton's trip to the hardline communist state came after the profoundly isolated regime of Kim -- who is reported to be in ill-health after a stroke -- had driven tensions sky-high with nuclear and missile tests.

"Bill Clinton courteously conveyed a verbal message of US President Barack Obama to Kim Jong-Il," Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency reported.

"Kim Jong-Il expressed thanks for this. He welcomed Clinton's visit to the DPRK (North Korea) and had an exhaustive conversation with him. There was a wide-ranging exchange of views on the matters of common concern."

Kim later attended a dinner in Clinton's honour which "proceeded in a cordial atmosphere", the agency said. It was hosted by the National Defence Commission, the country's top official body chaired by Kim.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, asked about the reported delivery of a message from Obama, said: "That's not true."

Refusing to comment on the visit, Gibbs added in a statement: "We do not want to jeopardise the success of former president Clinton's mission."

US outlet said the North had told relatives of reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee that it would release them to Clinton. It said the White House had approved the mission, which had been secretly planned for weeks.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency said Clinton was expected to fly out Wednesday with Ling and Lee, who were arrested in March while on assignment near the North Korean border with China.

Earlier Tuesday the North sent two senior officials -- and a schoolgirl with a floral bouquet -- to greet Clinton at Pyongyang's Sunan airport as he disembarked from a chartered plane.

Analysts said the warm reception indicated Pyongyang wanted better relations with Washington, which is pushing for strict enforcement of UN sanctions aimed at shutting down the North's nuclear and missile programmes.

Clinton, who sent his own secretary of state Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000, was greeted by chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-Gwan and Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of parliament.

He bent down to shake hands with the bouquet-bearing girl, the North's TV footage showed.

North Korea "was sending a signal that it was treating the former US leader with great hospitality and also that it was willing to have a political dialogue, including on nuclear disarmament", said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

Ling and Lee were arrested on March 17 while reporting on refugees fleeing the impoverished North into China. A court in June sentenced them to 12 years of "reform through labour" for illegal entry and other offences.

The harsh sentences soured relations already strained by the North's atomic test in May -- its second in three years -- and by its multiple missile tests and its decision to quit six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.

Official media said Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, had admitted to a politically motivated media smear campaign. The pair work for California-based Current TV, co-founded by Clinton's vice president Al Gore.

Their families and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the ex-president's wife, have appealed for their release on humanitarian grounds.

Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank said the North was seeking a breakthrough in relations by allowing the visit.

"It will also be used for domestic propaganda as it comes amid growing concerns about Kim's health," Cheong told AFP.

US and South Korean officials say the North's recent hardline behaviour is aimed at shoring up the authority of Kim, 67, while he puts in place a succession plan involving his youngest son.

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