A secret mission to North Korea by the former US president, Bill Clinton, accomplished its immediate goal: the release of two American journalists. What wider political ramifications it will have remains to be seen. Critics suggested that the move, which the White House described as a private humanitarian undertaking, could have signaled to Pyongyang that the US might yield to pressure to open bilateral talks on the thorny issue of North Korea's nuclear programme. "Former President Bill Clinton left North Korea on Wednesday morning after a dramatic 20-hour visit, in which he won the freedom of two American journalists, opened a diplomatic channel to North Korea's reclusive government and dined with the North's ailing leader, Kim Jong-il," The New York Times reported. "Mr Clinton departed from Pyongyang, the capital, at about 8.30am local time, along with the journalists, Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, on a private jet bound for Los Angeles, according to a statement from the former president's office." The Los Angeles Times reported: "The negotiations that led to former President Clinton's secret mission to North Korea began as soon as two US journalists were seized by the isolated Stalinist state, and have been spurred on by the administration's hope that they might lead to a resumption of gridlocked disarmament talks, according to people close to the process. "The goal was a specific deal: If the United States showed respect by dispatching a high-level emissary to Pyongyang, the North would release journalists Laura Ling and Eun Lee, who were arrested along the border with China on March 17. " 'This has been an orchestrated diplomatic process, carefully calibrated in both capitals,' said a person who has been close to the exchanges since they began. He asked for anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue. "The mission appeared headed for a successful conclusion today, as North Korean media announced that the regime would release the two women, who were expected to join the former president in a flight back to the United States. "A large number of respected figures volunteered to be the envoy, including Clinton; former Vice President Al Gore, who is co-founder of the media company that employs the two women; Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F Kerry; New Mexico Gov Bill Richardson; and former US Ambassador to South Korea Donald P Gregg. "But it became clear that Clinton was the best choice. He presided over a long thaw in relations between the US and North Korea as president in the 1990s and is one of the most important American visitors to the North since his secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, traveled there in 2000." The New York Times noted: "Accompanying Mr Clinton was John Podesta, who was his last chief of staff at the White House and is now an informal adviser to the Obama administration. Mr Podesta, the president of the Center for American Progress, a research organisation in Washington, is an influential player in Democratic policy circles. Mr Clinton also brought longtime personal aides, including Douglas Band. "Kang Sok-ju, the first vice foreign minister and Mr Kim's most trusted adviser on Pyongyang's relations with Washington, attended the meeting [between Mr Clinton and Mr Jong-il], and later in the evening the North's National Defense Commission, the country's top governing agency chaired by Mr Kim, hosted a dinner party for Mr Clinton, state media reported." The New York Times reported: "The two journalists, Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, had been held by North Korea since being detained by North Korean soldiers along the Chinese border on March 17. They were on a reporting assignment from Current TV, a San Francisco-based media company co-founded by Al Gore, the former vice president. "They were eventually convicted and sentenced to 12 years at hard labour for 'committing hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry.' But they were held near Pyongyang rather than sent to a labour camp after the sentencing, raising hopes that North Korea might be willing to pardon them. The administration, which had initially said the charges were 'baseless,' began discussing a possible 'amnesty' for the women, signaling a readiness to acknowledge some degree of culpability in return for their freedom. "On Tuesday, the Ling and Lee families issued a joint statement on their website in which they thanked the Obama administration, President Clinton and 'all the people who have supported our families through this ordeal.' They added that they were 'counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms.' "The pardon added to speculation among analysts in Seoul that North Korea, after months of raising tensions and hostile rhetoric towards Washington, may be ready to return to dialogue with Washington." The Christian Science Monitor noted: "North Korea, which has sought for years to elevate its standing by achieving direct talks with the US over its rogue nuclear programme, took the rare step of ushering the former president into a brief meeting with the ailing Mr Kim. Official North Korean news photos showed a beaming Kim greeting a solemn Clinton, while the official news dispatch said the two leaders engaged in a 'wide-ranging exchange of views.' "That encounter took place after Clinton was greeted at the Pyongyang airport by high-ranking officials - including the North's chief negotiator in its stalled international talks on its nuclear programme." The Los Angeles Times said: "Many Obama officials are sceptical that North Korea officials, who have repeatedly denounced the six-country disarmament talks, will return to the negotiating table. Yet some officials are hoping that the mission could provide the North with a face-saving way to move back toward negotiations. "Those might start, for example, with country-to-country talks between US and North Korean officials, possibly followed later by international negotiations, in a new format if not in the current so-called six-party format. North Korean officials have been eager for one-on-one talks with the Americans, believing they would have a better advantage. "US officials have publicly ruled out any new deal that would reward North Korea for finally doing what the United States and its allies have already paid them for doing, such as dismantling its aging Yongbyon nuclear reactor. But the United States and its partners might be willing to reward Pyongyang if it takes new steps toward disarmament, these sources said." Reuters said: "The United States has been a part of six-party talks in dealing with North Korea, while Pyongyang has longed to have negotiations directly with Washington. "Critics were dubious about Clinton's mission. " 'I think it's not a good idea,' said John Bolton, who was US ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush presidency. 'I think it expands the risk that North Korea and others will draw the conclusion that they can extract political concessions for holding Americans hostage.' "Clinton's trip dominated television news and headlines in the United States and, by happenstance, overshadowed a seven-nation tour of Africa by his wife, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton." In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal said: "The last time an American civilian was held prisoner by North Korea, in 1996, it took a visit from then-Congressman Bill Richardson to secure his release. Yesterday, it required the full prestige of a former US president to win the freedom of captive journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling. When it comes to giving up politically valuable hostages, the dear leader has clearly raised the price. "We don't begrudge the congratulations Bill Clinton deserves for saving the two journalists from what might have been a nightmare 12 years of hard labour; that was the sentence a kangaroo North Korean court imposed for allegedly blundering across its border with China in March. But the important question going forward is whether Mr Clinton's visit was merely the down payment Kim extracted from the Obama Administration for a potentially larger set of American concessions."