Two US reporters held in North Korea's notorious labour camps are to be released following the intervention of former president Bill Clinton.
Mr Clinton met with Kim Jong Il yesterday during a surprise visit to the secretive Asian state after which Mr Kim pardoned Euna Lee (36) and Laura Ling (32).
The two journalists, who work for former vice president Al Gore's Current TV, had been serving sentences of 12 years “reform through labour” after being convicted of illegal entry and “hostile acts”.
The announcement that they had been pardoned was made through North Korea's official state media.
The Korean Central News Agency had earlier reported that Mr Clinton and Mr Kim shared “a wide ranging exchange of views” during a meeting.
It said that the former US head of state “courteously” conveyed a message from President Barack Obama.
But the White House dismissed claims that Mr Clinton had delivered a personal message on behalf of Mr Obama.
Throughout the day, Washington remained tight-lipped over the trip by Mr Clinton.
In a brief statement, Robert Gibbs, the president's press secretary, said: “While this solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans is on the ground, we will have no comment.
“We do not want to jeopardise the success of former President Clinton's mission.”
The visit was not pre-announced either by officials in Pyongyang or Washington. It comes following months of tension on the Korean peninsular.
The testing of an underground nuclear device and the firing of rockets by the North earlier this year has led to a growing war of words.
During a bitter exchange, Mr Clinton's wife, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was singled out in undiplomatic language.
After accusations from Mrs Clinton that North Korea was behaving like an “unruly teenager” over its nuclear stance, the North's state media referred to her as a “funny lady”.
It said that the 61-year-old acted sometimes like a primary schoolgirl.
Yesterday's head-to-head with Mr Kim would represent the first such meeting with a high-profile western figure since the ailing North Korean leader reportedly suffered a stroke last year.
The nature of the talks that yielded the release of Ms Lee and Ms Ling has not been disclosed. The White House reiterated that they saw their detention as a separate issue from other bilateral and regional concerns, in an indication that they were not to be exchanged in any official quid pro quo.