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August 6, 2009

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Happy reunion as US scribes arrive home from Pyongyang

TWO American journalists freed by North Korea from months of detention returned to US soil early yesterday accompanied by former President Bill Clinton, who secured their release in a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, reporters for an American cable television venture co-founded by Clinton's former vice president, Al Gore, arrived with Clinton at an airport near Los Angeles aboard a private jet from Pyongyang.

President Barack Obama proclaimed the US government was "extraordinarily relieved" over the release of the two journalists and praised Clinton and Gore for their roles.

Speaking on the White House lawn just before leaving on a trip to Indiana, Obama said, "The reunion we've all seen on television, I think, is a source of happiness not only for the families but also for the entire country."

Obama said that he had spoken with the families of Ling and Lee once the pair was safely on aboard Clinton's private jet en route to the United States from North Korea. He also said he'd spoken with the former president.

Speaking to reporters earlier, press secretary Robert Gibbs had said the former president would brief Obama's national security team at some point on what transpired during his high-level meeting with Kim as a private envoy representing the US.

At the same time, Gibbs reiterated that the former president did not carry a message from Obama to Kim. "If there wasn't a message, there certainly couldn't have been an apology," he said.

In a statement released by his New York office, Clinton said he was "very happy" that the release could be worked out with North Korea's leaders.

US officials said North Korea was not promised any rewards for the duo's release and there was no link to nuclear non-proliferation talks.

Clinton's wife, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told reporters in Nairobi, Kenya, she was happy and relieved. She added that there was no connection between the effort to free the two journalists and the thorny nuclear issue.

"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 denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," she said.

A US official said the former president talked to North Korea's leadership about the "positive things that could flow" from freeing the two women, who had been held since March.

The Obama administration official gave no details, but some analysts have speculated that Clinton's visit and discussions with Kim could open the way to direct nuclear disarmament talks.


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