North Korea's Kim releases US journalists-KCNA
LONDON/SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has granted a "special pardon" to two jailed U.S. journalists which releases them from detention, the official KCNA news agency reported on Tuesday.
"Kim Jong-il issued an order of the chairman of the DPRK National Defence Commission on granting a special pardon to the two American journalists who had been sentenced to hard labour in accordance with Article 103 of the Socialist Constitution and releasing them," KCNA said in a statement which carried a Pyongyang dateline.
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton on Tuesday met Mr. Kim during a surprise visit to Pyongyang to try to negotiate the release of two jailed female U.S. journalists.
North Korean state media said Mr. Clinton had delivered a verbal message to Mr. Kim from current U.S. President Barack Obama, but the White House -- which had described the trip as a "solely private mission" -- quickly denied the report.
Mr. Clinton's trip to the hardline communist state, which comes after months of high tensions over the North's nuclear and missile programs, was the highest-profile visit by an American to Pyongyang for nearly a decade.
"Bill Clinton courteously conveyed a verbal message of U.S. President Barack Obama to Kim Jong-Il," the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
"Kim Jong-Il expressed thanks for this. He welcomed Mr. 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."
Mr. Kim later attended a dinner in Mr. 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 which is chaired by kim.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, asked about the reported delivery of a message from Mr. Obama, said: "That's not true."
South Korea's Yonhap news agency, quoting sources, said Mr. Clinton was expected to fly out Wednesday with journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested in March while on assignment near the North Korean border with China.
U.S. news outlet Politico.com said the North had told relatives of the reporters that it would release them to Mr. Clinton. It said the White House had approved the mission, which had been secretly planned for weeks.
Earlier Tuesday the North sent two senior officials -- and a schoolgirl with a floral bouquet -- to greet Mr. Clinton at the capital's Sunan airport.
Analysts said the warm reception indicates Pyongyang seeks better relations with its arch enemy Washington, which is pushing for strict enforcement of UN sanctions aimed at shutting down the North's nuclear and missile programmes.
Mr. Clinton, who sent his own secretary of state Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000, was greeted by chief nuclear negotiator Mr. Kim Kye-Gwan and Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of parliament.
He bent down to shake hands with the girl who presented him with a bouquet, the North's TV footage showed.
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 further soured relations already strained by the North's atomic test in May -- its second in three years -- its multiple missile tests and its decision to quit six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.
Official media said Ms. Ling, 32, and Ms. Lee, 36, had admitted to a politically motivated media smear campaign. The pair work for California-based Current TV, co-founded by Mr. 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.
"North Korea prepared high-profile officials to receive Mr. Clinton at the airport," said Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.
"It was sending a signal that it was treating the former U.S. leader with great hospitality and also that it was willing to have a political dialogue, including on nuclear disarmament."
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," Ms. Cheong told AFP.
Mr. Kim, 67, is widely believed to have suffered a stroke last August.
U.S. and South Korean officials say the North's recent hardline behaviour is aimed at shoring up Mr. Kim's authority while he puts in place a succession plan involving his youngest son.
"With Clinton's trip, Pyongyang will seek to improve relations with Washington or to end the current tense standoff over its nuclear test and UN sanctions," Mr. Cheong said.
The visit "will pave the way for bilateral talks on a package of issues including the North's nuclear program," he said.
The Mr. Obama administration has refused to link the journalists' detention with the nuclear standoff.
"As well as the release of the U.S. journalists, Clinton is expected to discuss a series of political issues including North Korea's nuclear program," said Mr. Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University.
"There will be no major breakthrough with his trip alone but I believe it will provide fresh momentum for nuclear disarmament talks."
The North quit the six-party talks after the UN censured its long-range rocket launch in April.
I suck at LJ cut. My apologies.