Former president Bill Clinton arrived in North Korea on Tuesday on a surprise mission to free two jailed US journalists, in what was the highest-profile visit by an American to Pyongyang for nearly a decade.

"Our interest is the successful completion of this issue and to confirm the safe return of the two journalists," a US official travelling separately with the ex-president’s wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told reporters.

The official added Clinton’s visit to Pyongyang would likely be short but refused to give more details. South Korea’s Munhwa Ilbo newspaper said he was expected to return to Washington on Wednesday.

Seoul analysts said the ex-president was expected to meet leader Kim Jong-Il, and to return home with the women, who were detained in March along the northern border with China while reporting.

They said the visit could also improve icy relations between the defiant North and the United States and its allies, following Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests this year and subsequent tougher United Nations sanctions.

Clinton, who sent his own secretary of state Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang in 2000, was greeted by chief nuclear negotiator Kim Kye-Gwan at the capital’s Sunan airport.

TV footage showed Yang Hyong Sop, vice president of parliament, also greeting the former US leader. A dark-suited Clinton shook hands with a young girl who presented him with a bouquet.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested on March 17 while reporting on refugees fleeing the impoverished North. A court in June sentenced them to 12 years of "reform through labour" for illegal entry and other offences.

The harsh sentences further soured relations already strained by the North’s atomic test in May — its second in three years, its multiple missile tests, and its decision to quit six-nation nuclear disarmament talks.

Official media said Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, had admitted to a politically-motivated smear campaign. The pair work for California-based Current TV, co-founded by Clinton’s vice president Al Gore.

Their families and Hillary Clinton have appealed for their release on humanitarian grounds.

Laura Ling, in a telephone call to her US-based sister Lisa last month, was quoted as saying: "Look, we violated North Korean law and we need our government to help us."

Cheong Seong-Chang of the Sejong Institute think-tank said the fact that North Korea was seeking a breakthrough in relations by allowing the visit.

"It will also be used for domestic propaganda as it comes amid growing concerns about Kim’s health," Cheong told AFP.

The 67-year-old leader is widely believed to have suffered a stroke last August.

Officials in Washington and Seoul say the North’s recent hardline behaviour is aimed at shoring up Kim’s authority while he puts in place a succession plan involving his youngest son.

"With Clinton’s trip, Pyongyang will seek to improve relations with Washington or to end the current tense standoff over its nuclear test and UN sanctions," Cheong told AFP.

The visit "will pave the way for bilateral talks on a package of issues including the North’s nuclear programme," he said.

The administration of US President Barack Obama has refused to link the journalists’ detention with the nuclear standoff. It has offered Pyongyang a package of political and economic incentives but only on condition of full denuclearisation.

A source quoted by Yonhap news agency said Clinton was accompanied by civilians from his charitable foundation on his charter flight and not by US government officials.

"By inviting Clinton, Kim will try to prove he has no trouble managing state affairs despite his ailment," said Kim Yong-Hyun, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University.

"As well as the release of the US journalists, Clinton is expected to discuss a series of political issues including North Korea’s nuclear programme," he told AFP.

"There will be no major breakthrough with his trip alone but I believe it will provide fresh momentum for nuclear disarmament talks."

The North quit six-party disarmament talks after the UN censured its long-range rocket launch in April. Its foreign ministry last week again dismissed the forum but indicated willingness for direct talks with Washington.

Clinton is following in the footsteps of another ex-president, Jimmy Carter, who went to Pyongyang in 1994.

That trip during Clinton’s presidency was widely seen as averting a US attack on the North’s nuclear plants. It led months later to a breakthrough accord, which fell apart during the administration of George W. Bush.

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