Two US journalists freed from North Korean detention have returned home with Bill Clinton, the former US president, who secured their release.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee landed at the Burbank airport near the western US city of Los Angeles on board a private jet on Wednesday, after being granted a "special pardon" by Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader.
"Thirty hours ago, Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea," Ling said shortly arriving in the US.
"We feared that at any moment we could be prisoners in a hard-labour camp. 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. We were shocked, but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end. And now we stand here home and free."
The pardon followed a visit by Clinton to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, for talks with Kim Jong-il on freeing the journalists.
North Korean authorities arrested Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, in March, saying they had crossed the border with China illegally "for the purpose of making animation files to be used for an anti-DPRK [North Korea] smear campaign over its human rights issue".
The two, who worked for the California-based Current TV co-founded by Al Gore, Clinton's vice-president, were found guilty after a trial and sentenced to 12 years of hard labour in June.
Barack Obama, the US president, thanked Clinton for his work towards securing the release of Ling and Lee.
"I want to thank President Bill Clinton - I had a chance to talk to him - for the extraordinary humanitarian effort that resulted in the release of the two journalists," he said.
|Clinton held talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il during his visit to Pyongyang
The visit by Clinton was the highest-profile US contact with North Korea since he sent Madeleine Albright, the then-secretary of state, in 2000.
But the Obama adminstration has insisted that the former president was acting as a private citizen and the trip was limited to securing the freedom of Ling and Lee.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said the journalists' release was a separate matter to talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
Speaking during a visit to Kenya on Wednesday, Clinton urged Pyongyang to engage with the international community.
"The future of our relationship with the North Koreans is really up to them. They have a choice," Clinton said at a news conference with Moses Wetangula, the Kenyan foreign minister, in Nairobi.
"We have always considered that a totally separate issue from our efforts to re-engage the North Koreans and have them return to the six-party talks and work for a commitment for the full, verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula," she said.
North Korea's state-run KCNA news agency said Bill Clinton had apologised on behalf of the women and relayed a message of gratitude from Barack Obama, the US president.
It said that the visit would "contribute to deepening the understanding between the DPRK [North Korea] and the US and building the bilateral confidence".
Christopher Nelson, an Asia analyst in the US who edits the Nelson Report on international affairs, told Al Jazeera that more than just the release of the two journalists needed to have come from the visit for it to be considered a success by Washington.
He said the North Koreans "definitely wanted the propaganda coup of getting [Clinton] to go there and show respect to Dear Leader - to the leader of North Korea - and ... they got that in spades".
"So people here [in the US] are worried, with cause, that if all we get are the two women being returned - and we're personally thankful for that, of course - then maybe we gave the North Koreans a little too much."
|Hillary Clinton said the journalists' release was not linked to the nuclear talks [Reuters]
"We'll need to see 'what next'. Did sending somebody of the stature and importance of Bill Clinton, does that serve as a door-opener, a bridge-opener ... a face-saving vehicle for the North Koreans to come back to talks about denuclearisation?"
Daniel Sneider, an associate director of research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre, said there had been weeks of quiet negotiations between the US state department and Pyongyang.
Bill Clinton "didn't go to negotiate this, he went to reap the fruits of the negotiation", Sneider told the Associated Press news agency.
Relations between North Korea and the US have worsened following Pyongyang's second nuclear test on May 25 and consequent United Nations sanctions.
North Korea pulled out of six-party talks on its nuclear programme, expelled nuclear inspectors and test-fired a barrage of missiles in defiance of the sanctions.
It also repeatedly issued bellicose rhetoric against South Korea and the US, but indicated last week that it was open to direct talks with Washington.
The US has maintained that the six-party arrangement is the appropriate forum for dialogue.