SEOUL North Korea said on Wednesday it had pardoned two jailed American journalists after former U.S. President Bill Clinton met the reclusive state's leader Kim Jong-il, a move some analysts said could pave the way to direct nuclear disarmament talks.
Clinton's spokesman said the former president had left Pyongyang with the two reporters and they were flying to Los Angeles.
"President Clinton has safely left North Korea with Laura Ling and Euna Lee. They are enroute to Los Angeles where Laura and Euna will be reunited with their families," spokesman Matt McKenna said in a statement.
Washington, which is keen not to be seen to reward the isolated North for its recent nuclear and missile tests, insisted the meeting was a private one by Clinton.
But Pyongyang, desperate for the recognition that direct talks with the Obama administration would bring, made clear it saw the visit in a much more official light.
The North's KCNA news agency said Clinton and Kim "had candid and in-depth discussions on the pending issues between the DPRK (North Korea) and the U.S. in a sincere atmosphere and reached a consensus of views on seeking a negotiated settlement of (the two journalists)."
The two reporters, Euna Lee, 36, and Laura Ling, 32, who work for Current TV, an American TV outlet co-founded by Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, had been sentenced to 12 years hard labor for illegally entering the North and committing "grave crimes."
"The families of Laura Ling and Euna Lee are overjoyed by the news of their pardon," said a statement posted on a website created to support the two journalists.
But there were immediate questions about what Clinton had discussed with Kim beyond the fate of the two reporters.
KCNA insisted Clinton had "courteously conveyed a verbal message of U.S. President Barack Obama expressing profound thanks for this and reflecting views on ways of improving the relations between the two countries."
The White House denied any message from Obama.
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, told MSNBC television that Clinton was on a "private humanitarian mission" and that "I don't think it's related to other issues."
But South Korea's Chosun Ilbo daily said in an editorial: "Regardless of what the U.S. administration says, the Clinton and Kim meeting signals the start of direct bargaining ... It's a matter of time when U.S.-North bilateral talks begin."
Clinton, husband of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was the highest-level American to visit the reclusive communist state since his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, went there in 2000.
North Korean sought to put its stamp on the visit.
"Clinton expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong Il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists against the DPRK after illegally intruding into it. Clinton courteously conveyed to Kim Jong Il an earnest request of the U.S. government to leniently pardon them and send them back home from a humanitarian point of view," KCNA said.
It said the visit would "contribute to deepening the understanding between the DPRK (North Korea), and the U.S. and building the bilateral confidence."
BENEFITS OR PITFALLS?
Clinton's trouble-shooting mission coincided with intense speculation over succession in Asia's only communist dynasty. Several reports suggest an increasingly frail-looking Kim, 67, has settled on his third son to take over.
It also comes as relations between Washington and Pyongyang have turned even worse after the North's nuclear test on May 25, which was met by U.S.-led international sanctions.
The impoverished North has turned its back on negotiations over its nuclear arsenal with regional powers, including the United States and China.
Some analysts warned that Clinton's visit was rewarding North Korea's for its provocative behavior and that it may be hoping that by pardoning the two journalists it can wring concessions from Washington.
It was the second time a former U.S. president had traveled to North Korea to try to defuse a crisis. Former President Jimmy Carter flew there in 1994 when tensions were running high, again over the North's nuclear weapons program.
He helped broker a deal in which Pyongyang suspended construction of a 50-megawatt plutonium reactor in exchange for heating oil and other energy aid.
(Additional reporting by Jack Kim in Seoul, David Morgan and Ross Colvin in Washington, Editing by Dean Yates)