Two American journalists jubilantly reunited with family and friends early Wednesday upon returning to the United States with former President Bill Clinton, whose diplomatic trip to North Korea secured their release nearly five months after their arrests.
The jet carrying Euna Lee and Laura Ling, reporters for Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV, and former President Bill Clinton arrived at Burbank's Bob Hope Airport at dawn. Clinton met with communist leader Kim Jong Il on Tuesday to secure the women's release.
The journalists were arrested near the North Korean-Chinese border in March while on a reporting trip for Current TV.
Lee emerged from the jetliner first and was greeted by husband Michael Saldate and 4-year-old daughter Hana. She hugged the girl and picked her up before all three embraced in a crushing hug as TV networks beamed the poignant moment live.
Ling embraced her husband Iain Clayton as teary family members crowded around.
"The past 140 days have been the most difficult, heart-wrenching days of our lives," Ling said, her voice cracking.
Thirty hours ago, Ling said, "We feared that any moment we could be sent to a hard labor camp."
Then, she said, they were taken to another location.
"When we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton," she said to applause. "We were shocked but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end, and now we stand here, home and free."
Clinton came down the stairs to applause. He hugged Gore at the foot of the stairs, then chatted with family members.
'Speaks well of our country'
Gore described the families of the two women as "unbelievable, passionate, involved, committed, innovative."
"Hana's been a great girl while you were gone," he told Lee. "And Laura, your mom's been making your special soup for two days now."
He also thanked the State Department for its help in the release.
"It speaks well of our country that when two American citizens are in harm's way, that so many people will just put things aside and just go to work to make sure that this has had a happy ending," he said.
After 140 days in custody, the reporters were granted a pardon by North Korea on Tuesday, following rare talks between Clinton and the reclusive North Korea leader. They had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally.
The women were kept in enforced isolation and fed poor-quality food, Ling's sister said.
"They were kept apart most of the time. ... On the day of their trial, they hugged each other and that was it," Lisa Ling told reporters outside her sister's home in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.
"She's really, really anxious to have fresh fruit and fresh food. She said there were rocks in her rice. Obviously, it's a country that has a lot of economic problems.
"The little bit that she was able to recount of her experience of the last 4 1/2 months has been challenging for us to hear," Lisa Ling said. "She's my little sister but she's a very, very strong girl and a determined person."
Ling's husband told reporters that his wife had spent more time in North Korea than in their North Hollywood home, which they bought in November shortly before she went overseas.
"It was very lonely," Clayton said. "One of the hardest things was obviously coming home every night, and there were reminders of her in the house."
The women, dressed in short-sleeved shirts and jeans, appeared healthy as they prepared to leave North Korea. They shook hands with Clinton before getting into the jet, exclusive APTN footage from Pyongyang showed. Clinton waved, put his hand over his heart and then saluted.
North Korean state TV showed Clinton's departure, and North Korean officials waving to the plane, but did not show images of the two journalists.
Obama thanks Clinton, Gore
Speaking on the White House lawn just before leaving on a trip to Indiana, President Barack Obama said the administration is "extraordinarily relieved" that the pair has been set free. He said he had spoken to their families once the two were safely aboard a plane out of Pyongyang.
"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 said.
Obama made no mention of the tense relationship between Washington and the regime headed by Kim Jong Il, and he said that "all Americans should be grateful" to both Clinton and Gore "for their extraordinary work."
He said he expects to meet with Clinton to discuss what transpired during his high-level meeting with Kim as a private envoy representing the United States.
"I suspect that President Clinton will have some interesting observations from his trip," Obama said in an interview on MSNBC television.
Obama said Clinton was on a strictly humanitarian mission.
When asked whether the release of the journalists could lead to a breakthrough on other issues like North Korea's nuclear program, Obama said that would depend on the actions of the communist regime.
"We just want to make sure the government of North Korea is operating within the basic rules of the international community," Obama said.
North Korea's state-run media reported that Clinton traveled to North Korea with a message from Obama and delivered an apology about the incident to Kim. The White House denies both reports.
"If there wasn't a message, there certainly couldn't have been an apology," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday she is not counting on a breakthrough in relations with North Korea, but she held out hopes 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.
Ling, a 32-year-old California native, is the younger sister of Lisa Ling, a correspondent for CNN as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "National Geographic Explorer." Lee, 36, is a South Korean-born U.S. citizen.
They were arrested near the North Korean-Chinese border in March while on a reporting trip for Current TV.
Ex-president's visit was a coup
The release also amounted to a successful diplomatic foray for the former president, who traveled as an unofficial envoy, with approval and coordination from the administration. He was uniquely positioned for it as the only recent president who had considered visiting North Korea while in office, and one who had sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.
His landmark visit to Pyongyang to free the Americans was a coup that came at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea's nuclear program.
The meeting also appeared aimed at dispelling persistent questions about the health of the authoritarian North Korean leader, who was said to be suffering from chronic diabetes and heart disease before the reported stroke. The meeting was Kim's first with a prominent Western figure since the reported stroke.
Pardoning Ling and Lee and having Clinton serving as their emissary served both North Korea's need to continue maintaining that the two women had committed a crime and the Obama administration's desire not to expend diplomatic capital winning their freedom, said Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
"Nobody wanted this to be a distraction from the more substantially difficult issues we have with North Korea," he said. "There was a desire by the administration to resolve this quietly and from the very beginning they didn't allow it to become a huge public issue."
Discussions about normalizing ties with North Korea went dead when George W. Bush took office in 2001 with a hard-line policy on Pyongyang. The Obama administration has expressed a willingness to hold bilateral talks — but only within the framework of the six-nation disarmament talks in place since 2003.
North Korea announced earlier this year it was abandoning the talks involving the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, China and the U.S. The regime also launched a long-range rocket, conducted a nuclear test, test-fired a barrage of ballistic missiles and restarted its atomic program in defiance of international criticism and the U.N. Security Council.
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