By Sharon Churcher and Caroline Graham
Last updated at 1:34 AM on 10th August 2009
The story has all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster. Two beautiful girls in peril, an evil North Korean dictator holding them captive and, riding to the rescue, Slick Willy himself, former President Bill Clinton.
As journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee collapsed, sobbing tears of joy, into the arms of their relieved families after being pardoned from a sentence of 12 years’ hard labour in North Korea, their palpable relief was perhaps enhanced by the flood of lucrative film, book and interview offers that came pouring in.
The pair had been arrested on the North Korea-China border last March, accused of illegal entry and spying.
Then, last Wednesday, the silver-tongued Clinton burst back on to the global political scene by flying to the world’s most secretive state for what its regime described as ‘sincere and exhaustive discussions’ with leader Kim Jong Il.
Little over 24 hours later, the diplomatic mission apparently a huge success, Clinton was on a flight back to California with the women in tow to be greeted by the world’s media.
Kim Jong Il has ruled it with absolute authority since 1994. He was born in the Forties, but his exact birthday is asecret. He wears platform shoes and a teased hairdo and is reputed to have had a string of lovers, both male and female. His hobby is watching old Hollywood movies including Rambo, Friday The 13th and James Bond.
When the girls were taken into custody, he was preparing to test a ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
A US State Department source said: ‘These two naive girls became useful pawns in a much bigger chess game. The North Koreans’ idea was to put them on trial, sentence them to prison camp and offer to free them for concessions.’
In fact, their ‘ordeal’ appears to have been far from tough. According to Professor Han Park, an American academic who was visiting North Korea at the time, they were housed in a guest villa designed for foreign visitors outside the capital of Pyongyang.
Professor Park said that Korean officials laughed at any suggestion that the women were receiving harsh treatment. ‘We are not Guantanamo,’ he was told.
The women were allowed to receive daily letters from their husbands and parcels from home.
Euna is married to struggling actor Michael Saldate, who has been in such B-movie classics as Absolute Debauchery and Man, Moment, Machine. They have a five-year-old daughter, Hana.
Laura’s husband, Iain, said he sent her ‘things she loved, like dried squid and beef jerky’.
In a letter dated May 15 – read aloud at a candlelit vigil for the two women, the organisers of which included a Broadway theatre publicist – Laura related that her routine included yoga and meditation. She said: ‘I breathe deeply and think about positive things that happened in the day.’
The private jet that brought the journalists home on the ground in California this morningJet-set: The private plane paid for by billionaire businessman Steve Bing, a friend of Clinton's, which brought the journalists back to the Bob Hope Airport in California
Indeed, her worst complaint was that her rice tasted like ‘rocks’.
The Clinton confidant said: ‘The women were a prize. Most people in North Korea would be lucky to be treated the way those girls were.’
For Bill Clinton, it was an easy mission. In a phone call to her husband a month ago, Laura said that if Clinton turned up, she and Euna would be granted amnesty.
The Clinton insider said: ‘Obama’s people suggested sending Al Gore, but Kim Jong Il only wanted Bill.
He idolises the former President because he thinks he is a virile stud with influence in Hollywood.’
Just as Laura fretted she was being overshadowed by her sister Lisa, Bill Clinton has found it increasingly hard to reconcile himself to life on the sidelines. When asked to undertake a ‘sensitive’ mission to ‘rescue’ the pair, he jumped at the chance.
He was picked up at an airport near his home in the bucolic New York suburb of Chappaqua by a private jet laid on by the Dow Chemical company. It flew him 3,000 miles to Burbank, California, where he boarded a Boeing 737 provided by Steve Bing, one of his best friends and a generous contributor to the Clinton Foundation, the charity with which he has been occupying his post-Presidential years.
On arrival in North Korea, he was chauffeured to the Presidential Palace, where he was photographed posing alongside a triumphant Kim Jong Il. According to an observer, no words were exchanged. The women walked in, weeping, as they were told that they were being released.
The Clinton confidant said: ‘This wasn’t about the women – this was about a PR coup.
Barack Obama may have defeated Bill’s wife but this is the Clintons’ revenge. The North Koreans are talking about nuclear disarmament but they say they will talk only to Bill. It’s a win-win situation for everyone except Obama.
Two greenhorn journalists stand to make a financial killing. And Bill is on a roll now that everybody has bought into the official story.