From The New York Times:
WASHINGTON — Former President Bill Clinton arrived in the United States Wednesday morning after a dramatic 20-hour visit to North Korea, in which he won the freedom of two American journalists, opened a diplomatic channel to North Korea’s reclusive government and dined with the North’s ailing leader, Kim Jong-il.
The private plane carrying Mr. Clinton and the journalists, Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, landed at 5:50 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, just outside Los Angeles.
The two women stepped off the plane in jeans and sweaters, rushing down the stairs to be reunited with their families, who clustered around them. Ms. Lee, in tears, embraced her husband, Michael Saldate, and knelt to hug her 4-year-old daughter, Hana. Ms. Ling kissed her husband, Iain Clayton. Mr. Clinton stepped off the plane a few moments later, embracing former Vice President Al Gore, the founder of the media company that employs the journalists.
“Thirty hours ago, Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea,” Ms. Ling said in brief remarks to reporters, blinking back tears. “We feared that at any moment we could be prisoners in a hard labor 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,” she said, recounting the final moments of her ordeal. “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.”
Mr. Gore then spoke. “President Obama and countless members of his administration have been deeply involved,” in the effort to bring the women home, he said.
The North Korean government, which in June sentenced the women to 12 years of hard labor for illegally entering North Korean territory, announced hours before the jet’s departure from North Korea that it had pardoned the women after Mr. Clinton apologized to Mr. Kim for their actions, according to the North Korean state media.
Mr. Clinton’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, said Wednesday that the administration was “extremely excited” that the women would be reunited with their families. But she denied that her husband had apologized.
President Obama, who contacted the families of the women on Tuesday evening, said that he, too, was “extraordinarily relieved” at the journalists’ return.
Mrs. Clinton was deeply involved in the case, too. She proposed sending various people to Pyongyang — including Mr. Gore — to lobby for the release of the women, before Mr. Clinton emerged as the preferred choice of the North Koreans, people briefed on the talks said.
About 10 days ago, these people said, Mr. Gore called Mr. Clinton to ask him to undertake the trip. Mr. Clinton agreed, as long as the Obama administration did not object.
In an interview Wednesday with NBC’s “Today” show in Nairobi, Kenya, Mrs. Clinton said the final request to Mr. Clinton had come from the White House.
As president, Mr. Clinton had sent Mr. Kim a letter of condolence on the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, according to a former official. For Mr. Kim, the former official said, freeing the women was a “reciprocal humanitarian gesture.”
Administration officials said Mr. Clinton went to North Korea as a private citizen, did not carry a message from Mr. Obama for Mr. Kim and had the authority to negotiate only for the women’s release.
Still, North Korea, clearly seeing a propaganda opportunity at home and a rare chance for a measure of favorable publicity abroad, welcomed Mr. Clinton with the fanfare of a state visit.
Among those accompanying Mr. Clinton was David Straub, a former director of the Korea desk at the State Department, who had held talks with the North Koreans through what is known as the “New York connection.”
Also on hand was John Podesta, an informal adviser to the Obama administration who served as Mr. Clinton’s chief of staff in the final years of his presidency, when the former president yearned to travel to North Korea to clinch a deal that would have curbed its nuclear program.
That visit never happened — partly because the White House concluded that a deal was not assured — and former President George W. Bush put the brakes on direct talks with North Korea, setting the stage for eight years of largely fruitless efforts to stop the North’s nuclear ambitions.
Given Mr. Clinton’s stature and his long interest in the North Korean nuclear issue, experts said it was likely that his discussions in North Korea ranged well beyond obtaining the release of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee.
Mr. Clinton has sought to find the right place in the Obama era, eager to play a role without stepping on the toes of the new president or, certainly, the secretary of state.
The last time the two had spoken, said the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, was in March, when Mr. Obama invited Mr. Clinton to a ceremony in Washington for signing legislation expanding the AmeriCorps program created by Mr. Clinton.
In interviews last spring, Mr. Clinton said that he would be happy to do anything Mr. Obama asked him to do, but that “I try to stay out of their way.”