PYONGYANG, North Korea (CBS) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Il granted a special pardon to two American journalists Tuesday, ordering their release after a special visit from former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV media venture had been jailed since March when they were arrested along the Chinese-North Korean border. They pair were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in June for illegal entry and engaging in "hostile acts."
Earlier Tuesday, Clinton arrived for the surprise meeting widely believed geared toward securing the prisoners' release.
Clinton held "exhaustive" talks with Kim that covered a wide range of topics, state-run media said.
According to state media, Clinton "courteously" conveyed a verbal message from President Barack Obama. Kim expressed his thanks, and engaged Clinton in a "wide-ranging exchange of views on matters of common concern," the report said.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denied reports of Clinton conveying a message from Mr. Obama, saying, "that's not true."
His 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.
CBS News reported exclusively last week on new overtures from the communist state seeking direct talks with the U.S.
CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk says Clinton's visit could be, in the minds of the North Koreans, equivalent to direct talks with the U.S., owing to his unique connection to the Obama administration.
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.
CBS News security analyst Juan Zarate told Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith that Mr. Clinton's visit stands to benefit both Pyongyang and Washington.
"Both sides are looking to win," said Zarate, who adds that North Korea has seemingly achieved exactly what they had hoped to by detaining the Americans and using them as pawns: "High level recognition."
Footage from the APTN television news agency showed the arriving Clinton exchanging warm handshakes with the officials and accepting a bouquet of flowers from a schoolgirl.
Kim later hosted a banquet for Clinton at the state guesthouse, Radio Pyongyang and the Korean Central Broadcasting Station reported.
Lee, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, is married and has a 4-year-old daughter in Los Angeles; a native Californian, Ling is the married younger sister of TV journalist Lisa Ling.