Tearful reunion as Clinton mission raises NKorea hopes

BURBANK, Rob Woollard - Two US reporters tearfully rejoined their families 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.
The former US president's chartered plane touched down as dawn was breaking in Burbank, California and taxied Euna Lee and Laura Ling to a private aircraft hangar for an emotional family reunion.

Tearful reunion as Clinton mission raises NKorea hopes
"The past 140 days have been the most difficult heart-wrenching time of our lives. We are very grateful that we were granted amnesty by the government of North Korea and we are so happy to be home," said Chinese-American Ling, her voice cracking as she spoke.
South Korean-born Lee, 36, was overwhelmed as she descended the steps, breaking down in tears as she hugged her husband Michael Saldate and their four-year-old daughter Hana.
Behind her, 32-year-old Ling threw her arms triumphantly in the air before speaking, on behalf of them both, to more than 100 waiting journalists, praising Clinton and his "supercool team."
"Thirty hours ago Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea," she said.
"We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard labor 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 and Lee were found guilty of illegally crossing into North Korea and sentenced to 12 years' hard labor following their March arrest while reporting a story on human trafficking from the China-NKorea border.
Clinton's landmark meeting Tuesday with reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il -- during the highest-profile American visit in almost a decade -- has raised hopes of renewed US engagement with Pyongyang.
But while North Korea's official news agency described Clinton's visit in a markedly positive tone, President Barack Obama signaled no shift in ties and urged Kim again to abandon his nuclear quest.
"We have said to the North Koreans there is a path for improved relations, and it involves them no longer developing nuclear weapons and not engaging in the provocative behavior they have been engaging in," he said during a visit to the US state of Indiana.
The harsh sentences for 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.
Obama, addressing the media on the White House lawn before flying to Indiana, hailed 62-year-old Clinton's "extraordinary humanitarian efforts" and those of former vice president Al Gore, who co-founded the Current TV network that employed Ling and Lee.
The White House said Clinton and his staff would be mined for vital information by national security advisors.
Despite months of high tensions sparked by the North's nuclear and missile tests and United Nations sanctions, Clinton received a warm and well publicized welcome in Pyongyang.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported his meetings with Kim had "reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement" of issues dividing the two countries.
But the White House portrayed the mission as purely private and denied KCNA reports that Clinton had apologized and conveyed a verbal message to Kim from Obama.
While Ling made no reference to the circumstances surrounding their March arrest, her sister later said the pair had been held in isolation for most of their time in North Korea.
"I think they saw each other very early on for a couple of days in the beginning and then they were separated for the duration of the four-and-a-half months," Lisa Ling told a LA television station.
KCNA reported that Kim had agreed to pardon Ling and Lee after Clinton "expressed words of sincere apology" for their "hostile acts." Such an apology has been denied by the White House.
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.

Thursday, August 6th 2009
Rob Woollard

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