SEOUL, South Korea - His mission accomplished, former President Bill Clinton left Pyongyang early Wednesday accompanied by American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il pardoned the women from their 12-year prison sentences.
Clinton and the two Californians were flying back to the U.S., his spokesman Matt McKenna said, less than 24 hours after the former U.S. leader landed in the North Korean capital on a private, humanitarian trip to secure their release.
Clinton has "safely left North Korea with Laura Ling and Euna Lee" and all three were en route to Los Angeles, where the journalists will be reunited with their families, he said.
The White House had no comment.
Their departure was a jubilant conclusion to a more than four-month ordeal for the women arrested near the North Korean-Chinese border in March and sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor for illegal entry and engaging in "hostile acts."
Clinton's landmark trip to Pyongyang also resulted in rare talks with reclusive Kim Jong Il 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.
North Korean media characterized the women's release as proof of "humanitarian and peace-loving policy." State media said Clinton apologized on behalf of the women and relayed President Barack Obama's gratitude. The report said the visit would "contribute to deepening the understanding" between North Korea and the United States.
Time of heightened tensions
While the White House emphasized the private nature of Clinton's trip, his landmark visit to Pyongyang to free the Americans was a coup that came at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea's nuclear program.
The meeting also appeared aimed at dispelling persistent questions about the health of the authoritarian North Korean leader, who was said to be suffering from chronic diabetes and heart disease before the reported stroke.
Kim smiled broadly for a photo standing next to a towering Clinton. He was markedly thinner than a year ago, with his graying hair cropped short. The once-pudgy 67-year-old, who for decades had a noticeable pot belly, wore a khaki jumpsuit and appeared frail and diminutive in a group shot seated next to a robust Clinton.
North Korea accused Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, both of former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture, of sneaking into the country illegally.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged North Korea last month to grant them amnesty, saying they were remorseful and their families were anguished by their detention.
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.