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.
Thanks, Bill for reminding Americans what diplomacy is and should be.
I'm just wondering how the "party of No" Republicans will spin this great act.
Thank you, President Clinton. Your calm diplomacy worked wonders. This proves that speaking to our enemies is what we have to do in order to improve relations. Seeing the two journalists reunited with their families brought tears to my eyes. I'm so gald you're still on the job.
Pres. Clinton's still got it! We are fortunate to have him helping out with diplomacy around the world. Between him and his wife, and I am sure with Obama's blessing, this world will finally like American again!
Well done, sir. President Clinton is proving to be a much better former president than he was president.
I always was a fan of Bill Clinton and now this just confirms what a person he is. So many people still castigate him for his past sin, but let me tell you that he has more than made up for it with his skill and intelligence. It was so great seeing those two women reunited with their families.
It's great they got out, however, Obama does not want to be another Carter with hostages. I wonder what we gave up? Hmmmmmmmm
Hoo-ray for Bill! Once again, he proves that diplomacy works! What a great guy!
Welcome home Ling and Lee!
The one good thing about having George W. Bush as president for 8 years is that you can really appreciate competence that much more now that he's gone, and Americans can look back at what having Republicans in the majority in both houses and the executive branch did to our nation. Good reason to NEVER voter Republcan again.
Thank God they are safe and Thank God for Good Men like President Clinton and President Obama. Both great Men!!!!!
Yep, just imagine their surprise to see the almighty Bill Clinton..... I wonder if they shared cigars on the flight home. Tthese two young women worked for AlGore, and their heroes came to their rescue. They should not have put themselves in the position in the first place.
Bill clinton knew how to talk to people lets hope the gop does not spoil this nice story kathy and preston
Way to go, Mr. President, both of you!!!
THANK YOU PRESIDENT CLINTON!!
I am confused who is president Clinton or Obama? It seems Clinton is ...
With all his faults, he can still get results on the international stage.
Score one for Bill and the Dems.
I wonder if McDufus had been elected, that this result would be the same?
Yes, its great to have those women back with their families, BUT! What we don't really know is what actually went on during the meeting? Did Bill make some consessions on behalf of US? Did he say that our Prez. will be more lineant toward the Dictatorship gov-t? I mean cmon, we have to look past the idea that his visit alone resulted in release of the two women...that is way too naive to think like that. So before you bow down to Bill and say how great he is and thank him 2o times, think about the visit itself and what else could have been said there!
I am glad they are back. Just few weeks ago we were in a position to tell the North Koreans what we want from them. Now the North Koreans are in a position to tell us what they want from us. A big shift from a little tiny man that scare the hell out everyone with his obssession of his long and short missiles. I hope Bill Clinton by accomplishing their release didn't jeopadize the security of this country or even the world. Personally I don't think they were worth the trouble if my security is at risk.
The world is a safer place because of Bill and Hillary Clinton!
The public should take notice that the only dissenting voice to this happy outcome is from a Republican, John Bolton.
What a glorious day. It just shows what can happen when you have reasoned people involved. I am happy that we have people who actually care for others and are devoted to working hard to achieve successful endings. Sure beating the days of inane name calling.
Thanks Prez. Clinton,
glad they sent you, instead of the War Mongor BUSH/CHENEY-
Had bush gone/ we'd be at war tomorrow.
GOP = PARTY OF NO
NO IDEAS *** NO FUTURE.
the party of the south
Take the opportunity to bash Bush once again. Regardless, this was a wonderful ending to what could have been sure death to these young women. I do believe Clinton showed a very different side – I, for one, applaud him.
what a wonderful story – thank you Bill Clinton you are a great President before and after!!!
Thank you to Bill Clinton, Gore and, Thank you to President Barack Obama. Our heroes!!!!!!!!!
What a great moment!