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.
Thank you Bill Clinton. Diplomacy, instead of war, war, and more war.
President Clinton has charm, charisma and appeal. He is the main reason this country did so well in the nineties. Thanks Bill we appreciate you. We need more leaders as humble, down to earth and gracious as you...
As I watched this morning I was crying right along with everyone else!! Thank you President Clinton, your team, and that were involved with the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee!
Great job Bill!!! Welcome home to those ladies. What a great relief for you and your families.
Send him to the Middle East next. If anybody has a shot at world peace, it's probably Bill Clinton. President Obama would be a wise man to use Bill for peace making missions.
How many people in the world have the courage to go to N Korea at this point in time, leave alone former presidents. Bill is a true hero in every sense considering anything could have happened in this trip.
US is a great country and Bill is a great citizen of this country.
Do your job media. Do you really think Clinton pulled this off when he landed? It was in the works and negotiated well before he got involved. All he did was go pick them up. Where did all the journalists go?
The greatest president of the 20th century does it again!
The republicans only hate the man because they know just how good he is. W. couldn't lace Clinton's shoes. I like Obama but even he is not as good as Bill Clinton.
I am so glad those young women are home!! Thanks to all the people who made this possible. It speaks volumes for the leadership we now have in the Whitehouse. I am so thankful that Democrats won the election!!
Praise God Almighty for the wonderful things HE has done through President Obama, President Clinton and the many others who were talking to North Korea about the release of these two women. Truly glad to hear that they are safely back home with their families.
Thank you, President Clinton for your willingness to help in this siuation!
How I wish the nay-sayers would just admit that Bill Clinton is one of the best and most respected people in the world OR just SHUT UP!!
I cannot understand why there are people who continue to hate he and Hilary...WOW!!...it is very scary to think war, confrontation, arrogance, and the like are more desirable to them than peace, communication, and respect!!
Respect... Didn't North Korea call Hillary a dumb little school girl or something like that about a month ago. Now Bill is over there apologizing and making friends. Way to stand up for your wife buddy. Good job.
Why can't President Clinton get Brazil to return that litle boy to his father. We aren't even at war with Brazil. We returned Elian G. to his dad....in Cuba..Warm up the US Jet and send Hilary's husband to get it done...
Come on folks, let's not get it twisted. President Obama sanctioned and approved this trip for the former President after former Vice-President Al Gore made the telephone call. He did what he was called to do as the former president of the US. Jessie Jackson did is before without all the accolades as well.
It wasn't a "Big Win" for Bill Clinton, because he didn't do it alone! It was a big win for American diplomacy, President Obamas administration and the families of these two young ladies that worked through a lot of different channels to make this happen!
I've officially switchwed to MSNBC for my blogs and news, because CNN is starting to scare the poop out of me! Good luck & Godspeed to those that remain!
Bill CLinton is a rock star, no other way to say it. A frail North Korean leader says let me get my picture taken with President Clinton and I will free the journalists. Unbeleivable.
Obama thanked Gore for his role – what role? Getting them detained in the first place so we had to send an ex-president on a show tour to get them released?
Note to Gore: Please stop playing at being a journalist, and stop playing at being a scientist. Just do what you do best – eat.
A sincere thank you President Clinton!
The GOP should stop their garbage talk about this...that Clinton somehow did wrong and 'gave up' to North Korea or in some way put the U.S. in a worse position because of this humanitarian action......
Would some have preferred that these 2 women languish in a prison just to prove a point? Hopefully we in the U.S. are better than that, and should not sink to the level of our adversaries.
Again, what did we give N.K. in exchange. Hopefully Al Gore.
Thank you Mr. Clinton. George Bush would have sent an atomic bomb. Diplomacy works in this world.
Diplomacy Creates Peace not War.
I am waiting for the negative comments to start coming in from the GOP.
I see that Bolton has already started.
If McCain had been elected he would have already bombed NK along with Iran and possible Pakistan.
working with others is not in the GOP; this is clear with every bill/plan that has come out of this congress. They can only obstruct,say no or just out in out lie.
Good thing for those 2 reporters we have people like Clinton/Carter and Obama.
Agreed, this is an excellent example of what diplomacy vs. hostility can achieve. If we try to reach common ground and show respect to our enemies perhaps some of them would cease to be our foe's. Thank you former President Clinton, and thank you President Obama for your cool heads handling this situation. I hope we are as successful with some of the other issues we are currently facing.
I know and trust that this administration will do what’s right for the country and are actually working in the nations interest. Its refreshing that with the kind of confidence Ive reciently gained in my government, how proud I am to be an American.
I LOVE the CLINTON'S always!!!! I voted for Hillary in the primaries but voted for McCain for president because those two are "REAL PROUD AMERICAN'S!" This country is not perfect but at least hear you will have freedom, freedom, freedom! Unlike some people that will never be satisfied how this country has progressed since its founding!
Of course everyone is glad they're home, but at what price? Do you really beleive Jong-il released them because Bill Clinton said so?