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Bill Clinton returns to U.S. with pardoned journalists

Euna Lee, left, and Laura Ling return home to the U.S. after being detained for four months in North Korea
Euna Lee, left, and Laura Ling return home to the U.S. after being detained for four months in North Korea

Reuters via CPJ

IFEX members the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the International Press Institute (IPI) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) welcomed last week's release of U.S. journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were jailed since March in North Korea. Following rare talks with reclusive leader Kim Jong-il, who pardoned the women, former U.S. President Bill Clinton brought the journalists home on 5 August.

The women were arrested near the Chinese border in March while reporting for Current TV, a media company founded by former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, on the trafficking of North Korean women to China. They were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labour for illegal entry and engaging in "hostile acts."

According to Ling's sister, Lisa Ling, who spoke to reporters, the women spent most of their time isolated, ate rice mixed with rocks and walked in circles in their cells for exercise.

The journalists' release followed weeks of quiet negotiations between the State Department and the North Korean mission to the United Nations, said Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appealed to North Korea to show leniency in July.

Clinton "didn't go to negotiate this, he went to reap the fruits of the negotiation," Sneider said.

Bill Clinton's trip to secure the journalists' release, characterised as a "private effort" and not an official diplomatic mission, also resulted in rare talks with Kim that state-run media described as "wide-ranging" and "exhaustive." The meeting was Kim's first with a prominent Western figure since reportedly suffering a stroke nearly a year ago.

"We're pleased to see that the two journalists' ordeal is finally over," said IPI. "This was a complex case with major political ramifications. Our concern, from the beginning, was that Laura Ling and Euna Lee were being used as political pawns in North Korea's nuclear standoff with the United States."

The families of the two women issued a joint statement thanking President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the U.S. State Department for their work.

"We especially want to thank President Bill Clinton for taking on such an arduous mission and Vice-President Al Gore for his tireless efforts to bring Laura and Euna home," according to the statement posted on a website dedicated to freeing the two journalists.

RSF continues to demand the release of a third journalist, Korean national Kim Seong-cheol, who is still being held by the authorities.

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