WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama proclaimed the U.S. government "extraordinarily relieved" Wednesday over the release of two American journalists from North Korea and praised former President Bill Clinton and former Vice-President Al Gore for their roles.
Speaking on the White House lawn just before leaving on a trip to the state of Indiana, Obama said, "The reunion we've all seen on television, I think, is a source of happiness not only for the families but also for the entire country."
Obama made no mention of the overall tense relationship between Washington and the regime headed by Kim Jong Il, and he said that "all Americans should be grateful to both former President Clinton and Vice-President Gore for their extraordinary work."
Obama said that he had spoken with the families of Laura Ling and Euna Lee once the pair was safely on aboard Clinton's private jet en route to the United States from North Korea. He also said he'd spoken with the former president.
Speaking to reporters earlier, press secretary Robert Gibbs had said the former president would brief Obama's national security team at some point on what transpired during his high-level meeting with Kim as a private envoy representing the United States.
At the same time, Gibbs reiterated that the former president did not carry a message from Obama to Kim. "If there wasn't a message, there certainly couldn't have been an apology," the spokesman said.
When asked whether the release of the journalists could lead to a breakthrough on other issues like North Korea's nuclear program, Gibbs said that will depend on the actions of the communist regime.
"The people that walked away from the obligations they agreed to were not anybody involved on our side," Gibbs said. "It was the North Koreans."
Clinton arrived at a Los Angeles area airport earlier Wednesday with the two freed journalists. In a statement released by his New York office, he said he was "very happy" that the release could be worked out with North Korea's leaders.
Clinton called their plight a "long ordeal," and said he was gratified that they "are now home and reunited with their loved ones."
The former president said that he shared "a deep sense of relief with Laura and Euna and their families that they are safely home."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday she isn't counting on a breakthrough in relations with North Korea, but she held out hope of a thaw.
"Perhaps they will now be willing to start talking to us within the context of the six-party talks about the international desire to see them denuclearize," she said on NBC television's "Today" show.
Hillary Clinton, travelling in Africa, said her husband agreed to serve as a special envoy to Pyongyang after the North Koreans sent word through the two detained journalists and their families that his visit "would be the best way to assure their release."
A senior administration official described a lengthy process of "due diligence" to make sure that the North Koreans were seriously willing to release the women to the former president.
"We, through a variety of means, tested that proposition and to our satisfaction were convinced that in fact the North Koreans would, in response to President Clinton visiting Pyongyang, would release the journalists," the official said Tuesday night.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to outline some of the secretive preparation for the former president's trip.
The official would not detail how those conversations took place, but added that the administration insisted that the North Koreans acknowledge that the Clinton visit would not be part of any broader negotiations between the two countries or connected to negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program.
"The North Koreans confirmed to us directly that they accepted his visit in a private capacity that exclusively focused on the humanitarian purpose of releasing the two Americans," the official said.
The United States and North Korea have no formal diplomatic relations, but have communicated through channels at the United Nations and through intermediaries in the past.
U.S. diplomats and nuclear experts have visited the country and stayed for long periods last year, before the North pulled out of international disarmament talks and kicked out weapons inspectors.
The former president held discussions with some of Obama's national security advisers and experts on the Korea issue ahead of the trip, the official said. But the official added that Obama did not speak directly with Clinton before the trip.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan and Matthew Lee contributed to this report. Lee reported from Nairobi, Kenya.