"We made clear in every communication we had with the North Koreans, and President Clinton made clear in all his conversations that this was a purely private humanitarian mission, being solely for the release of the two journalists," an administration official said. "And that in fact was completely separate from issues between North Korea and the international community. That it would remain crystal clear the separation here."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today that at "some point" Clinton would talk to Obama about the mission, but no time has been set yet for that discussion. Obama spoke to Clinton on the phone for a few minutes after the plane landed and thanked the former president for doing a "great job," Gibbs said.
While the trip may have been secretive, it had been in the works for months. In July, Lee and Ling told their families -- whom they were allowed to call weekly -- that the North Koreans specifically asked for Clinton to come to North Korea, and that they would be freed if he did.
The two women apologized for crossing the border from China into North Korea but today, Ling's sister, journalist Lisa Ling, denied they used "poor judgment."
"Based on the limited knowledge I have, I don't think they used poor judgment," the former co-host of "The View" said. "There's probably more that we don't know about."
Ling's father, Douglas Ling, told ABC News' Kate Snow that he never lost hope that his daughter would come home.
"I knew something positive was going to happen, and it happened," he said. "And I am so glad and I am so thankful for all the people and their prayers and thoughts."
Ling and Lee flew back with Clinton on a private Boeing 737 plane owned by movie producer Steve Bing, a close friend of the former president.
Their families said the two were relaxing and enjoying family time and food.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il ordered the release of the two jailed journalists through "a special pardon," the country's state-run news agency reported Tuesday.
Clinton's trip fulfilled one of North Korea's two demands -- a visit from a high-profile emissary. Their first -- an apology -- came from his wife a few weeks ago.
"Kim Jong-Il probably is thinking about succession and he may have thought this may be the only chance I get for a former president to come," said former governor of New Mexico and former secretary of state candidate Bill Richardson. "It has been their dream for years to have an American president come to North Korea."
And despite a few tensions in the hour and a 15-minute meeting between Clinton and Kim, both sides got what they wanted. For the North Korean leader, it was a chance to boast a visit from a high-profile U.S. leader and an opportunity to pose for pictures with Clinton, and for the United States, the safe return of the two imprisoned journalists.
But what really happened during the meeting was conveyed quite differently.
North Korea's Central News Agency said Clinton apologized for the two female journalists "illegally crossing the border and committing a grave crime against our nation."
But Secretary Clinton, in Kenya for a state trip, said that any rumors that her husband apologized for the journalists were "not true. That did not occur."
The White House also denied reports that Clinton carried a message from President Obama to Kim Jong-Il.