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US: Tearful reunions as Clinton mission raises NKorea hopes

Thu Aug 6 03:27:38 EST 2009

by Rob Woollard

BURBANK, California, Aug 5 AFP - Two US journalists tearfully rejoined their families on Wednesday after Bill Clinton won their freedom on a historic trip to North Korea that opened up new possibilities for dialogue with the nuclear-armed hermit state.

Laura Ling, 32, threw her arms triumphantly in the air as she descended the steps from Clinton's chartered plane in Burbank, California and 36-year-old Euna Lee broke down in tears as she hugged her four-year old daughter Hana.

"Thirty hours ago Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea," said Ling.

"We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard labour camp and then suddenly we were told that we were going to a meeting. We were taken to a location and when we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us president Bill Clinton."

Ling praised Clinton and his "supercool team" for securing their release and bringing to an end a 140-day ordeal that began with their arrest back in March as they reported from near North Korea's border with China.

Clinton's landmark meeting on Tuesday with reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il raised hopes of renewed US engagement with Pyongyang over its nuclear program although the first noises from President Barack Obama's administration were full of caution.

While North Korea's official news agency described Clinton's visit in a markedly positive tone, the White House signaled no shift in ties and urged Kim to live up to his past agreements if he wanted better relations.

"The best way to change our relationship with North Korea would be for the North Koreans to decide that it is time to live up to the responsibilities and the agreements that they themselves entered into," said spokesman Robert Gibbs.

His comments were echoed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wife of the former president, on a trip to Africa, who said: "The future of our relationships with the North Koreans are really up to them.

"They have a choice if they continue to follow the path that is filled with provocative action, which further isolates them from the international community... or they can decide to renew their discussions with the partners in the six-party talks."

As Obama hailed 62-year-old Clinton for his "extraordinary" efforts, the White House said the former US president and his staff would be mined for vital information about their trip by national security advisers.

Despite months of high tensions sparked by the North's nuclear and missile tests and United Nations sanctions, Clinton received a warm and well publicised welcome in Pyongyang.

The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Clinton's meetings with Kim had "reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement" of issues dividing the two countries.

The White House portrayed the mission, the highest-level US trip to North Korea in almost a decade, as purely private and denied KCNA reports that Clinton had conveyed a verbal message to Kim from Obama.

Ling and Lee faced 12 years' hard labour before they were pardoned.

"Euna and I would just like to express our deepest gratitude to president Clinton and his wonderful, amazing, not to mention supercool team... and the United States Secret Service who travelled half way around the world, and then some, to secure our release," said an emotional Ling.

Anxious relatives, who had been counting the hours until the pair's return, erupted with joy as they finally emerged from the plane at a private aircraft hangar in Burbank.

Lee was overwhelmed by the moment and broke into sobs as she rushed down the steps and hugged her husband and little daughter. Behind her Ling raised her arms in a triumphant and relieved salute before embracing husband Iain Clayton.

Ling made no reference to the circumstances surrounding their March arrest. Lee did not speak to the media.

KCNA reported that Kim had agreed to pardon them after Clinton "expressed words of sincere apology" for their "hostile acts."

The harsh sentences on the reporters had soured relations already strained by the North's atomic test in May, multiple missile launches and its decision to quit the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.

US and South Korean officials say Kim, 67, is staging a show of strength while he puts in place a succession plan involving his youngest son.

Kim reportedly suffered a stroke last August and appears notably older, thinner and frailer in recent photos - including those taken with Clinton.