Clinton is the highest-profile US envoy to visit North Korea in almost a decade and one of the few to have met Kim Jong-il face-to-face.

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Facing an intelligence black hole in the one of the world's most secretive states, US officials will be eager to obtain information and insights from Clinton on the state of the North Korean leadership, particularly amid speculation over Kim's health and his possible successor.

Kim is widely believed to have suffered a stroke last year, and other reports have said he is on dialysis. Recent photographs have shown him gaunt and with thinning hair.

'Not a policymaker'

In his first public comments since returning on Wednesday with the two reporters, Clinton said in a carefully worded statement that he was "profoundly honoured" to have been part of the mission, although he denied that he had any role in US policy toward the North.
 
"I wanted those young women to be able to come home and I wanted our two countries to have the ability to decide where to go from here," he said at his foundation headquarters in New York.

North Korea said a broad range of issues were discussed with Clinton during his visit [AFP]

"But anything I say beyond that could inadvertently affect the decisions and moves either here or in North Korea and I have no business doing that. I'm not a policymaker anymore."

Clinton added that he had "an obligation to report to my government and otherwise say nothing that would in any way tip the balance of any kind of decisions that may or may not be made".

The former president had more than three hours of talks with the North Korean leader during his time in Pyongyang, and met other senior government officials.

According to North Korean state media Clinton and Kim had "candid and in-depth discussions" on a range of issues affecting US-North Korean relations.

It said the two had "reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement of them".

US officials have not disputed claims that Clinton discussed a range of issues in his three hours of meetings with North Korea's leader, although they have not elaborated on what was discussed.

The meeting follows months of escalating tensions between North Korea and the US, following the North's second nuclear test earlier this year and a spate of missile launches.

Summit hope

The United States knows very little about the North's internal affairs [EPA]
According to a South Korean government official quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Kim was hoping to secure the kind of direct summit with Obama that he failed to secure with the Clinton as his administration drew to a close in 2000 and 2001.

The Obama administration however has reiterated that the only way for North Korea to improve ties with Washington is to give up its nuclear programme.

US officials have said that despite the successful outcome of Clinton's visit – in the form of the release of the two reporters - that would not in itself lead to an easing of international pressure on the communist state.

Critics of Clinton's visit have complained that it could be leveraged by North Korea as a "reward" for its actions.

But the former president's wife, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, defended her husband's trip saying that similar initiatives had been undertaken by other ex-presidents and members of Congress.

"It is absolutely not rewarding them. It is not in any way responding to specific demands," she said in a television interview from the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

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 has also released a stream of bellicose rhetoric against South Korea and the US, warning of imminent war, but indicated last week that it was open to direct talks with Washington.

The United States has said it is willing to hold direct talks with Pyongyang but only on the sidelines of the main six-party nuclear disarmament talks that bring together negotiators from US, China, Japan and Russia and the two Koreas.