BURBANK, California (CNN) – Laura Ling expressed the shock that she and Euna Lee felt when former President Bill Clinton showed up in North Korea to secure the two journalists' release.
"We feared at any moment that we could be sent to a hard labor camp, and then suddenly we were told we were going to a meeting," a tearful and emotional Ling said Wednesday.
She spoke at a news conference just minutes after the two women were reunited with their families at Burbank's Bob Hope Airport outside Los Angeles.
They had been detained in North Korea since March. The reclusive communist nation pardoned Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, after Clinton arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday and helped secure their release.
"We were taken to a location and when we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton," Ling said, with Lee standing beside her.
"We were shocked, but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end."
She expressed their "deepest gratitude" to Clinton and his "wonderful, amazing" team.
"The past 140 days have been the most difficult, heart-wrenching time of our lives," Ling said. "We are very grateful that we were granted amnesty by the government of North Korea and we are so happy to be home."
She said the women are looking forward to spending "some quiet, private time" with their families.
Former Vice President Al Gore also spoke to the throngs of media at the news conference. He expressed his gratitude to Clinton, President Barack Obama and his administration who "have been deeply involved in this humanitarian effort."
Lee and Ling are employed by Gore's California-based media company Current TV. The women were arrested in March while reporting from the
border between North Korea and China and sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor on charges of entering the country illegally to conduct a smear campaign.
Lee bowed as she walked down the steps of the plane into a private hangar, and Ling raised her fists into the air. The women hugged their
families, who were waiting at the bottom of the stairs. Lee's 4-year-old daughter, Hannah - who has not seen her mother since March - clung tightly to her tearful mother.
Clinton secured their release in a brief trip to Pyongyang. He walked off the plane, giving the women time to reunite with their families, but he did not address the crowd.
Through an official statement released Wednesday by his office, Clinton said, "I am very happy that after this long ordeal, Laura Ling and Euna Lee are now home and reunited with their loved ones."
"When their families, Vice President Gore and the White House asked that I undertake this humanitarian mission, I agreed. I share a deep sense of relief with Laura and Euna and their families that they are safely home."
Speaking at the White House, Obama applauded the journalists' release.
"We are very pleased with the outcome," Obama said Wednesday, noting that their release is a "source of happiness not only for the families (of the journalists) but for the entire country."
Obama thanked Clinton and Gore for their roles in winning the release of Lee and Ling.
Clinton made the trip to North Korea after the families of the women asked him to travel there and seek their release, a senior administration official said Tuesday. Gore - who served as Clinton's vice president - also made the same appeal to Clinton.
Doug Ling, Laura Ling's father, reacted to the news of his daughter's release outside his home in Carmichael, California, saying it was "one of the best days in my life."
"I figured, sooner or later, they'd be back," he said.
In Los Angeles, family friend Welly Yang said the Ling family had "done everything they could, while respecting the North Korean government, to try and get Laura home."
He predicted that Ling would remain a journalist. "Despite this terrifying experience, I can't imagine that Laura would give up her passion to
tell stories that otherwise wouldn't be heard."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her relief that the two women were released. She spoke from Nairobi, Kenya, where she is taking part in a multi-nation visit to Africa.
"I spoke to my husband on the airplane, and everything went well, we are extremely excited that they will be reunited soon when they touch down in California," the secretary of state said. "It is just a good day to be able to see this happen."
Ling and Lee spoke to their families in July and told them the North Koreans were willing to grant them amnesty if a high-level envoy, such as
former President Clinton, were willing to travel to Pyongyang, the administration official said.
North Korea said that Clinton "expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong Il" for the journalists' actions, but an Obama administration official said he knew nothing about an apology.
He said Clinton met for a total of three hours and 15 minutes with the North Korean leader but said he did not know what issues were discussed. But he said that Clinton's views on a verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula are "well known."
North Korea's state-run Korea Central News Agency said Clinton conveyed a message from Obama "expressing profound thanks for this and reflecting views on ways of improving the relations between the two countries."
But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had told reporters in Washington prior to the announced agreement that Clinton was not carrying any message - written or oral - from Obama.
Gibbs added that the former president last spoke with Obama during a White House visit in March. He described Clinton's trip as a "solely private mission to secure the release of two Americans."
Clinton's mission came as the United States and its allies in the region are seeking to persuade North Korea to return to nuclear disarmament talks, which have stalled.
North Korea conducted its second nuclear bomb test in May, and has conducted several missile tests since. The United Nations has responded to those tests by tightening and expanding sanctions on the nation.
North Korea and the United States were on opposite sides in the 1950-1953 Korean War and had no regular contacts before a 1994 crisis over North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea agreed then to halt the development of nuclear weapons, but abandoned that accord and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003.
Former President Clinton had considered visiting North Korea in 2000, near the end of his second term as president. His secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, had gone to Pyongyang in early 2000 to meet with Kim - the last high-ranking American official to do so before this week.
Bill Clinton has show the power of humble,caring international diplomacy . Truly a far cry from blind ethnocentric american militarism–which is what Bush and the republican party of the 21st century has been giving us..... way to go –mark this one down for the good guys!
Care instead of kill.
Fabulous story...how remarkable and what a fabulous feeling for those two young women to see your former U.S. President upon release.
N. Korea like Former President Bill Clinton
No one does it better than Bill Clinton! I STILL believe he is the best President we have ever had (in my lifetime)!
Thank you President Clinton ~ well done!!
I have to hand it to Bubba, that was a well executed move, tip of the hat to #42
Good job President Clinton. You are good leader. Maybe we can take the training wheels off Obama before he leaves office.
Even though i'm more conservative I've always a positive view of Bill Clinton. This just made my view of him even higher, he looks out for the people.
What an amazing day. Bill Clinton showed what kind of humanitarian that he is. While Bush is sitting at home on his ranch...or whatever, Bill and Hilary are making a difference in the world. Nice job Bill.....and THANK YOU!!
Thank you, President Clinton and thank you President Obama for supporting his trip to get the two journalists freed! You are both a shining example of what true diplomacy is....Republicans can really learn a huge lesson from you! Respect is never gained by being disrespectful!
One Nation, Under God...Who is slowly UNITING us ALL...Good Going Mr. Clinton !
Bill is always the intelligent, motivating, good communicator. Now just think if Bush would have been able to accomplish the same ....NOT!
Good job Bill.
He's the "Man". Best president this country has ever seen!!!Oh that's right, he had extra-marrital affairs. gee, he would have fit right in as a republican...except he actually cares about the little people!!!
I am not seeing any remorse from these two ladies for what they did and what it cost to bring them back.
I hope these two ladies will not profit from their irresponsible conduct by writing a book or something. If they do, I hope they will payback to the goverment the money it spent getting them back.
I have little sympathy for what they did. They acted irresponsible and caused an embarassment to our country.
Excellent work by President Clinton!
And this is why Clinton is the best President in the past 50 years.
As a mother, I am thrilled that these young women have safely been returned to this country. To the families I wish them all the best, and to everyone who had a part in this diplomatic effort, I say well done.
Every single day I wish Bill Clinton was still President of the U.S. When he was in charge, we overcame the deficit and started paying on the debt, no soldier died abroad in an unnecessary war-for-oil disaster, everyone who wanted a job was able to get one, our Economy was humming along, and people around the world respected America. Talk about "the good ol' days" – those were the 90's when Clinton was President. I'd have voted him President-for-life if able to. THANK YOU MR. PRESIDENT CLINTON!!! You'll go down in history as a great men and great leader.
Great story and great ending. The Clintons are some of the best Americans ever.
Thank God they are home with their families.
Thank you President Clinton for this wonderful outcome. You're a true diplomat.
Thanks you the former president. I am glad the tow women now back to US.
Well done Pres. Clinton! I realize what has been missing the last eight years. Hopefully the cowboy diplomacy is gone forever.
Here are questions the media will not ask.
1) What were those two journalists who work for Al Gore doing in North Korea in the first place?
2) What did Slick Willy promise North Korea in return for Al Gore's employees?
3) Why was it so important to send a high profile American into a communist country?
Please media, do your job and ask those questions before glorifying Slick Willy.
not thing about losing face, but respect other country. This is one of Asian culture that the American couldn't never undertand them well.
Bill is the man!
Now please do something about Healthcare, the economy and EFCA!
Thank you President Clinton!!!!
Diplomacy is back in the White House.
Do you think President bush would have done this? NO!
Do you think any republican leader would have done this? NO!
Well, I take that back. If Kim Jong Il was holding a personal check or a "campaign contribution" they might have.
Clinton may have been the only person alive that could have pulled this off........hats off to you Mr. President for stepping up to the plate and hitting it out of the park.