(For full coverage of reporters' release, click on [nNORKOR])
* Bill Clinton brings two journalists back to L.A.
* Obama says N.Korea must give up nuclear weapons program
* U.S. insists there's no link to nuclear talks
* McCain says Pyongyang using Clinton for propaganda
(Updates with McCain quote, edits)
By Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES, Aug 5 Two American journalists
freed by North Korea tearfully reunited with their families in
the United States on Wednesday while Washington tried to play
down talk of a breakthrough with Pyongyang.
Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, reporters for an American
cable television venture arrived at Burbank airport near Los
Angles aboard a private jet with former President Bill Clinton,
who secured their release after meeting over dinner with North
Korea's reclusive and ailing leader, Kim Jong-il.
President Barack Obama said he was "extraordinarily
relieved" at the women's return but insisted the way for North
Korea to improve relations with the United States was to give
up nuclear weapons and stop its belligerent behavior.
Clinton's dramatic visit was the first high-level U.S.
contact with North Korea in nearly a decade.
Despite the mission's success, the drama underlined the
fine line Washington treads to avoid rewarding Pyongyang after
repeated military provocations while trying to coax it into
giving up its ambitions of becoming a nuclear-weapons power.
Critics of North Korea, including Republican Senator John
McCain, accused Kim of using Clinton's visit to enhance his
position amid doubts about his health.
They urged the Obama administration not to sidestep
six-nation negotiations by engaging in direct bilateral talks
with North Korea on ending its nuclear weapons program, a move
that worries U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.
North Korea quit the on-and-off negotiations last year and
has since insisted it will only talk with Washington.
Ling thrust her arms in the air as the two beaming women
descended from the plane to an emotional reunion with their
families in an airport hangar. Lee hugged Hana, the 4-year-old
daughter she had not seen for five months.
Ling said they both feared they could be taken to a hard
labor camp when they were led instead on Tuesday to a location
where Clinton was waiting for them.
"We knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our
lives was finally coming to an end. Now we stand here home and
free," she told reporters.
The two journalists, who work for Current TV, co-founded by
Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, were arrested on March 17
for illegally crossing into North Korea from China and had been
reporting on the trafficking of women. They were both sentenced
to 12 years of hard labor in June.
Clinton did not speak on arrival, but said in a statement
that the women's families, Gore and the White House had asked
him to undertake the humanitarian mission to Pyongyang.
The former president, who tried unsuccessfully to halt
North Korea's nuclear arms program in the 1990s, spoke briefly
with Obama by telephone and will brief national security
officials on his meeting with Kim, the White House said.
North Korea painted the meeting between Clinton and Kim as
high-level talks the North Korean leader will certainly use to
boost his image at home. [ID:[nSP535186]
In North Korean media photos, Kim was smiling and looked in
reasonable health after speculation he was seriously ill. Some
reports have said Kim may have suffered a stroke last year and
is grooming his youngest son to succeed him.
"I think it'll be very interesting," said McCain. "He's the
first Westerner to see Kim since his reported stroke and other
problems. I think former President Clinton will have some
North Korea's KCNA news agency said Kim issued a special
pardon to the U.S. journalists enabling them to leave. It also
reported that Clinton and Kim agreed their two countries should
settle "pending issues" between them through dialogue.
The Obama administration insisted it had not offered any
sweeteners to North Korea in its nuclear standoff with the West
in return for its release of the journalists, although a senior
U.S. official said Clinton did talk to North Korea's leadership
about the "positive things that could flow" from freeing them.
"We were very clear that this was a humanitarian mission.
President Clinton was going on behalf of the families," Obama
said in an interview with MSNBC television.
"We have said to the North Koreans there's a path for
improved relations and it involves them no longer developing
nuclear weapons, not engaging in provocative behavior."
Clinton's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in
Nairobi there was no connection between efforts to free the
journalists and the thorny nuclear issue. [ID:nL5276240]
Critics of her husband's mission said Pyongyang had clearly
linked the journalists' case to the nuclear issue by sending
its top negotiator, Kim Kye Gwan, to greet Clinton at the
Analysts speculated that Clinton's meeting with Kim could
open the way to direct nuclear disarmament talks between
Washington and Pyongyang. [ID:nN04166831] [ID:nSP529443]
Financial markets in Tokyo and Seoul largely ignored the
women's release, although some South Korean traders said it
added a more positive atmosphere to what had been a string of
negative reports over the North in recent months.
North Korea fired a barrage of short-range missiles in
launch tests in May and exploded a nuclear device on May 25,
resulting in tougher U.N. sanctions that it has ignored.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Paul Eckert, Ross
Colvin and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Jack Kim in Seoul,
Lucy Hornby in Beijing, Chisa Fujioka in Tokyo, Sue Pleming in
Nairobi; Writing by Anthony Boadle and Christopher Wilson;
Editing by David Storey and Peter Cooney)