North Korea's surprise "special pardon" of two American television journalists today may have reopened the channels of communication between the Obama administration and the secretive regime that for years has defied the world with its nuclear tests and political bombast.
After a whirlwind 24-hour visit that capped months of quiet diplomatic negotiations, former President Bill Clinton left Pyongyang on a private jet with the reporters after his talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, according to a spokesman for Clinton.
"President Clinton has safely left North Korea with Laura Ling and Euna Lee," Matt McKenna said in a statement. "They are en route to Los Angeles, where Laura and Euna will be reunited with their families."
Early today, television video showed the journalists, dressed in short-sleeved shirts, jeans and sneakers, shaking hands with Clinton as they climbed aboard the plane.
The two women were "enormously relieved and seemingly in very good health," a senior administration official said in a briefing.
The North's Central Korean News Agency reported that Clinton "expressed thanks [for the pardon] and delivered an oral message from Barack Obama on improving relations between the two countries."
It added that Clinton "delivered a sincere request from the U.S. government for a pardon and return [of the two journalists] from a humanitarian aspect."
In Washington, reaction from conservatives was generally muted. Democratic lawmakers heaped praise on the White House, even as administration officials said that Clinton made the trip as a private citizen.
Ling and Lee were on assignment for San Francisco-based Current TV in March when they were arrested by North Korean border guards. They later were sentenced to 12 years in prison for illegally entering the repressive state.
Reached at her home in Los Angeles, Ling's sister Lisa Ling said the extended families of both reporters were together Tuesday and were keeping in close contact with U.S. State Department officials regarding Clinton's progress.
"We are beside ourselves," Lisa Ling said of the release. "We are beyond thrilled and so excited that we will finally be able to hold them in our arms."
She called the long weeks since her sister's arrest in North Korea "the most unpredictable challenging 4 1/2 months of our lives."
U.S. officials said Clinton's trip was a high-stakes move. The North Koreans, eager to have their importance acknowledged, were pleased by the idea of a visit from the former leader of the free world.
The plan was to give them, with the visit, "a gesture of respect -- but that's all. No money, no flowery words," said a person familiar with the negotiations, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy.
He said the administration also intends to continue trying to ratchet up pressure on North Korea in response to recent nuclear tests and missile launchings that the United States and allies consider illegal.
U.S. officials have tried to enlist other nations, especially in Asia, to close down North Korea's nuclear and missile trade, and to try to cut the nation off from international financing to support that trade.
Clinton's mission risked domestic criticism that the administration was rewarding one of the world's worst weapons proliferators, a country that has repeatedly broken promises to the United States and its allies.
Some congressional Republican aides said it was difficult to judge the mission until it was clear what promises, if any, Clinton had made to Kim, and what the administration might give the North Koreans to try to resume talks.
Reaction to Clinton's trip seemed to run along partisan lines.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) applauded North Korea's gesture and praised President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her husband, Bill Clinton, "for their quiet but persistent diplomacy, which made this day a reality."
However, John R. Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush administration, condemned the "significant propaganda victory for North Korea, whether or not he carried an official message from Obama.
"Despite decades of bipartisan U.S. rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages, it seems that the Obama administration not only chose to negotiate, but to send a former president to do so," he wrote in a Washington Post column.
Other U.S. experts said the mission may not greatly improve the chances of North Korean cooperation on disarmament, but didn't cost the administration much, either.
Charles L. Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea, said it made sense for the United States to try to use direct talks with the North Koreans to nudge them back to group talks.
"It's always worth trying, until you receive irrefutable information that it's not going to work," said Pritchard, who is now president of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute. "If the answer is 'no' from the North Koreans, then you don't proceed."
The American gesture is likely to please the Chinese, who are the administration's most important partner on the North Korea issue because they have more leverage than any other country with the regime in Pyongyang. Chinese officials have repeatedly urged the administration to try to restart the talks.
Bill Clinton is the highest-profile U.S. official to visit North Korea in nearly a decade.
The former president's trip thrust him into intense publicity that temporarily overshadowed his wife. The secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who has been trying to raise her public profile after being sidelined for a month by a broken elbow, was in Africa on Tuesday beginning an 11-day trip.
In South Korea, analysts said they hoped Bill Clinton's visit was a first diplomatic domino whose fall would lead to a break in the tensions that have risen on the Korean peninsula in recent months with Pyongyang's testing of missiles and a nuclear warhead.
"Now, there's a green light for changing from a phase of confrontation to that of communication," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Others said that in lieu of a high-ranking Obama administration official, Clinton was the perfect emissary for the task.
"Clinton's perception or prestige in North Korea is remarkably higher than other names. Clinton is the U.S. president that North Korea thinks made the biggest achievement in a history of U.S.-North Korea relations," said Paik Hak-soon, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute on the outskirts of Seoul.
And while the details of the discussions between Clinton and Kim remained unclear, Paik said he thought that the talks would lead to more diplomatic breakthroughs.
"If it was simply a matter of freeing two journalists, it would not have been successful," he said. "Both countries have agreed that this visit would be a place to discuss big changes in relations and to solve nuclear issues."
Lisa Ling said the families had no immediate plans for the two journalists. "My guess is that they are going to be pretty traumatized and culture shocked," she said. "We want to let them decompress and get re-acclimated to being home."
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Beijing and Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.