Former President Clinton Headed Home from North Korea with Journalists

Photo: Former President Clinton Headed Home from North Korea with Journalists: Clinton Spokesman Says Former President Homebound, with Ling and Lee Onboard

Former President Bill Clinton ended his surprise trip to North Korea today, bringing home the two Asian-American journalists who had been jailed in the secretive nation, after he helped negotiate their pardons.

Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna verified Tuesday evening that Clinton "has safely left North Korea with Laura Ling and Euna Lee" and was "en route to Los Angeles where Laura and Euna will be reunited with their families."

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il today ordered the release of jailed U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee through "a special pardon," the country's state-run news agency reported Tuesday.

North Korea's Central News Agency said Clinton took a surprise trip to the country to negotiate Ling and Lee's release apologized for the two female journalists "illegally crossing the border and committing a grave crime against our nation."

Ling and Lee's families said in a joint statement they are "overjoyed by the news of their pardon."

"We are so grateful to our government: President Obama, Secretary Clinton and the U.S. State Department for their dedication to and hard work on behalf of American citizens," the statement said. "We especially want to thank President Bill Clinton for taking on such an arduous mission and Vice President Al Gore for his tireless efforts to bring Laura and Euna home."

Clinton met with Ling and Lee earlier in what was a very emotional meeting, a government source told ABC News.

Clinton arrived in Pyongyang early Tuesday and met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to talk about the two journalists, who were arrested after straying into the country while they were reporting on the Chinese-North Korean border. Ling and Lee were later convicted and sentenced to 12 years hard labor.

The White House today had little to say about the former president's visit except to stress that this is a "private mission."

"It's a little sensitive," said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. "We will have more to say on this hopefully later on."

Gibbs denied reports by North Korea's state media that Clinton carried a message from President Obama to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il. North Korea's Central News Agency said that Clinton 'courteously' conveyed a verbal message from Obama, and that Kim expressed thanks and engaged in "sincere talks" with Clinton.

Clinton's Mission to North Korea Was 'Private,' White House Says

"While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment. We do not want to jeopardize the success of former President Clinton's mission," Gibbs said in a statement released earlier today.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, en route to Africa on a state trip, would not comment until her husband's mission was complete, a senior U.S. official told reporters.

Arriving at Pyongyang in a specially chartered, unmarked jet, Clinton was greeted warmly by a young girl bearing flowers and top North Korean officials, including chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kyegwan. After meeting with North Korea's leaders, Clinton was treated to a state VIP dinner.

Sources told ABC News that Clinton's trip, while a surprise to some, was planned weeks ago and that it was former Vice President Al Gore who asked Clinton to go. Clinton was accompanied by his former Chief of Staff, John Podesta, who officials said was also involved in the planning.

Clinton's trip fulfills one of North Korea's two demands -- a visit from a high-profile emissary. As former president and husband of the current secretary of state, there could be few people of higher profile, and Gore founded Current TV, where the two journalists worked.

North Korea's second demand -- an apology -- was fulfilled by Hillary Clinton just a few weeks ago.

"The young women themselves have, apparently, admitted that they probably did trespass, so they are deeply regretful and we are very sorry it's happened," the former first lady said in an interview with ABC News last month. "Our most important goal is to make sure they get home safe."

Hillary Clinton's words were a clear departure from the administration's early rhetoric, and she also acknowledged that the State Department changed its approach in trying to free the two journalists. In June, she told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that the charges against Lee and Ling were "absolutely without merit or foundation."

One thing about Clinton's trip is clear: He would not have gone to North Korea unless he was certain he would be coming back with the two journalists.

Despite a few tensions in the meeting, both sides got what they wanted. For Kim Jong-Il, 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 U.S., the safe return of the two detained journalists.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee

Ling and Lee were detained by North Korea in March for illegally entering the country. At the time, they were working on a story about human trafficking for Current TV along the Chinese-North Korean border. The two admitted crossing the border illegally and apologized.

But in June, Ling and Lee were found guilty of "hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry" and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor by North Korea's highest Central Court.

Many feared that the two would be used as bargaining chips by North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions remain undeterred despite tougher sanctions and stern rhetoric.

The U.S. has repeatedly requested amnesty for the women, and the Obama administration considered for weeks whether to send a special envoy to the communist state. But the negotiation had been drifting while North Korea ran a string of nuclear and missile tests in defiance of United Nations resolutions.

Ling's sister, National Geographic contributor Lisa Ling, expressed her concern to ABC in an interview with "Good Morning America" in June.

"She has a recurring ulcer," Lisa Ling said. "And we know that she has been allowed to receive some medication. But we, we know that her doctor is very concerned. He has written a letter, appealing to the North Korean government to at least allow her to see a physician. And as we all know, ulcers are exacerbated by stress."

Lee's husband, Michael Saldate, left to take care of the couple's 4-year-old daughter, said he has told his daughter Hannah only that her mother is at work.

Earlier this summer, Lisa Ling told ABC News' Bob Woodruff that she dreamed of the moment of her sister's release.

"It's a scene that I've kind of replayed over and over in my head. I just hope it comes soon," an emotional Ling said.

Jessica Kim and ABC News' Huma Khan contributed to this article.

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