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 – YOU ae the MAN!!!! The World Loves You!!!!
Grateful and happy to see these brave young ladies back on American soil. As for President Bill Clinton - I really love that guy!
and pretty soon we will find out how bill clinton promised to reward the north korean dictator for kidnapping the girls.
this isn't about diplomacy, if you think so you're mistaken, the current administration will now promise to spend OUR tax dollars on food and other goods for north korea to reward their bad behaviour.
we've just been mugged by a communist dictator, thanks bill
I am so happy for these women, and so thankful to President Obama and Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
God Bless the USA and our democratic leaders.
Thank you, President Clinton. How terrific it is for you to have negotiated the release of these two journalists. The rest of the world recognizes how brilliant, pragmatic and adept at diplomacy you are, even the North Korean loonies. The nut cases here haven't gotten the idea yet that the rest of the world isn't afraid of us, so threats don't work. And they also forget that America shouldn't be about saber-rattling; it should be about creating peace. And you can't fight for peace.
I'm really glad Bill Clinton was able to help, but it's crazy that so much time, anxiety, and resources go into helping people who foolishly get themselves into trouble in foreign countries. It doesn't matter whether you're a dope-smoker or a journalist, or whether you decide to go nude on the wrong beach. These women showed a complete lack of respect for North Korea's laws, and the taxpayers got dinged.
That's the way to do it, DIPLOMACY.
Thank you to the Obama administration and our heroes, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. i'm so happy to see grown men back in power.
Bill is a rock. Can you imagine if Bush had gone?
Great Job Bill!!! Wish you could have stayed in office even longer than you did. I had alot more money back then! :)
We ALL should be relieved and happy that these journalists have been released! Thank you to all who took part in this release!
Even with all of his personal character defects, Bill Clinton is more of a statesman than any Republican I can think of.
With Obama, Clinton, Gore and the rest of the DemocratIC team, Americans can once again be proud of their government.
Isn't it amazing what rationale, cool-headed diplomacy accomplishes! Objectives met, no American lives lost!
Beautiful scene, and a great moment for the families. However, this is not a win for the US or for Bill Clinton. The North Koreans got exactly what they wanted out of this incident – a chance to look like humanitarians and get some positive PR while humbling the US and forcing more diplomatic recognition. The two were foolish to put themselves in the situation, and this was the price to get them out.
Amazing!! Clinton did something respectable and honorable!
Bill Clinton is one of the best Presidents of the last 100 years. Amazing accomplishment. And that the Obama had the brains and courage to ask, makes it even better.
Thank you Bill Clinton! See... no way would Bush have been able to secure this release! Bush's comments about North Korea would embolden North Korea to keep them as bargaining chips.
Yes, THANK-YOU SO MUCH !!!
To all the journalists out there – big and small, please use your sound judgment when entering hostile territory. Yes, the N. Korean may want respect from us, but they also want us to "lose face" For a former President to go to N. Korea to beg them to free these journalists, don't you think Bill and we, as a nation, lose some face?
Bill rocks. I'll bet he nailed both of them on the plane too!
He deserves this–he was so horribly abused by the Republicans when he was in office. The millions and millions of dollars that the Republican party wasted trying to nail him with anything they could latch on to in order to destroy his popularity and they have the indecency to condemn the Democrats for their spending when it's at least to help the country. All those miserable 8 years with Bush and the Democrats were decent enough to bear it, but not the Republicans. If things don' t go their way, they play dirty and its getting worse! So cudos to you President Clinton!
Great job Bill!!! I have always thought that the US was in better hands when Clinton was president. Through his intelligence and diplomatic ways he reached out to other countries to better understand their cultures and lend a helping hand. Something the Bush administration should have continued!
I always say – show respect – get respect!
Thanks Pres. Clinton – what you did was help bring these girls home. I have full confidence that you were backed by Pres. Obama and that your trip will help pave the way for a dialogue that got pushed to the side during the last administration – we can achieve so much through diplomacy.
Welcome home ladies and God Bless all involved in their safe return!
Bill you're theman. This man has respect around the world. Dumb ass Bush didn't earn respect in his own country that he and Cheney ruined. Way to go Mr Clinton.
It was a win-win for everyone. What a pleasant way to start the day. Diplomacy does work.