SEOUL, South Korea - North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has pardoned two jailed American journalists and ordered their release following an unannounced meeting with former President Bill Clinton, media reports said Tuesday.
Clinton met earlier Tuesday with Kim after arriving in Pyongyang on a surprise visit, holding "exhaustive" talks that covered a wide range of topics, state-run media said.
Clinton traveled to communist North Korea on a mission to try to secure the release of Americans Euna Lee, 36, and Laura Ling, 32, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture who were arrested along the Chinese-North Korean border in March and sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry and engaging in "hostile acts."
Clinton's landmark visit, which was not announced in advance by North Korea or the U.S., comes at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, foes during the Korean War of the 1950s, over the regime's nuclear program.
North Korea in recent months has conducted a nuclear test and test-fired an array of ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, with Washington leading the push to punish Pyongyang for its defiance.
It's only the second visit to Pyongyang by a former U.S. leader. Jimmy Carter traveled to North Korea for talks with Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 in a groundbreaking meeting during a time of similar tensions.
Clinton's meeting with Kim would be the notoriously reclusive North Korean leader's first with a prominent Western figure since Kim reportedly suffered a stroke a year ago, sparking questions about the future of the nation he controls with absolute authority.
Though Clinton was in North Korea on a private basis, his visit was treated by North Korea as a high-profile visit, with senior officials — including Kim Kye Gwan, the vice foreign minister who serves as the country's chief nuclear negotiator — meeting him on the tarmac.