WASHINGTON — Former President Bill Clinton left North Korea today after a dramatic 20-hour visit in which he won the freedom of two American journalists, opened a diplomatic channel to North Korea's reclusive regime and dined with its ailing leader, Kim Jong Il.
Clinton left Pyongyang, the capital, with the journalists, Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, on a private jet bound for Los Angeles, according to a statement from the former president's office.
The North Korean government, which in June sentenced the women to 12 years for illegally entering North Korean territory, announced hours earlier that it had pardoned the women after Clinton apologized to Kim for their actions, according to the North Korean state media.
"Clinton expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong Il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists," KCNA reported. "Clinton courteously conveyed to Kim Jong Il an earnest request of the U.S. government to leniently pardon them and send them back home from a humanitarian point of view."
Although the White House and the State Department steadfastly insisted that Clinton was on a "private humanitarian mission," the trip came about only after weeks of back-channel conversations involving academics, congressional figures and senior White House and State Department officials, according to sources involved in the planning.
North Korea rejected the administration's first choice for the trip — former Vice President Al Gore, who co-founded the television channel that employs the reporters — and Bill Clinton left the United States only after North Korea provided assurances that the reporters would be released, the sources said.
U.S. officials said they hoped Clinton's trip would give Kim a face-saving way to end North Korea's recent provocative actions, such as missile launches and a second nuclear test, and begin the process of returning to the negotiating table on its nuclear programs. The American effort also appears to have been aided by South Korea's government, which in recent weeks has sought to ease tensions with its neighbor.
During the visit, Kim hosted a banquet in Clinton's honor, attended by the head of the North Korean State Security Department, U Tong Chuk. State media broadcast images showing a dour-looking Clinton and a smiling Kim. And the KCNA report summarizing the trip was remarkably positive, speaking of "building the bilateral confidence" and "improving the relations between the two countries."
Ling and Lee were in many ways pawns in a test of wills between North Korea and the United States. After their sentencing in June, North Korea reportedly kept them in a guest house near Pyongyang, allowing them to make occasional phone calls to relatives in the United States. The sentence to hard labor was not carried out.
North Korea had long made it clear that it expected a high-profile visit on behalf of the reporters, but Gore may not have been acceptable because he was viewed as their boss and thus not an appropriate symbol of the United States. Other potential envoys considered by the administration included Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., New Mexico Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson and a former ambassador to South Korea, Donald Gregg.
The discreet discussions to secure the women's release continued even as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month slammed North Korea for having "no friends" and for acting like an unruly child. But in critical ways, she also moderated her tone about the case, moving from declaring in June that the charges were "absolutely without merit or foundation" to saying last month that the reporters "are deeply regretful, and we are very sorry it's happened."
Some officials believe the success of Bill Clinton's trip could result in the first U.S.-North Korea bilateral meeting of the Obama administration. They also think the United States will have a somewhat stronger hand because China for the first time has backed tougher sanctions in the wake of North Korea's May nuclear test.
No government officials appeared to be aboard Clinton's plane, but the nature of the delegation gave the mission a quasi-official status. It included John Podesta, who was Clinton's White House chief of staff and served as Obama's transition chief and is president of the Center for American Progress. Also seen in photos released by the Korean media were David Straub, former head of the Korea desk at the State Department, who is now at Stanford University; longtime Clinton aide Douglas Band; and Justin Cooper, who has worked with the William J. Clinton Foundation.
It is not clear who funded the trip.
The visit offered the United States its first direct look at the increasingly frail-looking Kim, 67, who is thought to have suffered a stroke a year ago and whose health has triggered speculation that he has picked his third son to take over Asia's only communist dynasty.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.