Bill Clinton Meets With N. Korea’s Kim Jong Il

North Korea announced Tuesday that it had pardoned two detained American journalists, hours after former president Bill Clinton met in Pyongyang with reclusive dictator Kim Jong Il as part of an unannounced and highly unusual diplomatic mission to win their freedom.

Kim issued an order “granting a special pardon to the two American journalists who had been sentenced to hard labour in accordance with Article 103 of the Socialist Constitution and releasing them,” the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

The Clinton-Kim meeting in Pyongyang, images of which were broadcast on North Korean television, was the first time in years that the ailing North Korean head of state has been visited by a Western leader. At a dinner banquet hosted in Clinton’s honor, the head of the North Korean State Security Department attended, signaling that a pardon was imminent.

Clinton traveled to North Korea after receiving explicit assurance that he would be able to depart with the two journalists, according to a source involved in the planning of the trip.

KCNA said Kim and Clinton exchanged “a broad range of opinion” in their talks. North Korean media also reported that Clinton delivered a “verbal message” to Kim from President Obama, but the White House denied that any formal message was sent.

North Korea is believed to be in the middle of a leadership transition. Its relations with the United States have deteriorated steadily since Clinton left office, and North Korean officials were openly caustic in July toward his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been deeply concerned about the captive journalists.

The former president and his party were greeted early Tuesday at an airport in Pyongyang, the capital, by Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, and by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan, North Korea’s official news agency said. Kim Kye Gwan is the chief nuclear negotiator for North Korea, raising questions about whether Pyongyang hoped to use the visit to make progress on the impasse over its nuclear weapons.

Photos and televised footage showed Clinton, who is deeply respected in North Korea, smiling and chatting with a young girl who presented him with a large bouquet of flowers.

Clinton was accompanied on the trip by John Podesta, who was his White House chief of staff, served as Obama’s transition chief and is president of the Center for American Progress. Also seen in photos released by the Korean media were David Straub, former head of the Korea desk at the State Department, who is now at Stanford University; longtime Clinton aide Douglas J. Band; and Justin Cooper, who has worked with the William J. Clinton Foundation. In a sign of the significance attached to the visit in North Korea, the English-language version of the Korean Central News Agency Web site declared, “BILL CLINTON ARRIVES HERE,” in extra-large type.

A spokeswoman for the Center for American Progress referred questions about who funded the trip to the State Department. News of Podesta’s role came as a surprise to staffers at the center. He was believed to be on vacation in Truckee, Calif.

A source familiar with the planning of the visit said the administration’s consensus choice to travel to Pyongyang was former vice president Al Gore, who co-founded the news channel that employs the journalists. But North Korea rejected Gore as an envoy.

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