August 5th, 2009
02:32 PM ET
13 years ago

Freed journalist: 'We knew the nightmare was...coming to an end"

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.

Filed under: Bill Clinton
soundoff (281 Responses)
  1. beachgirl


    Again he has shown the world what a respectful man he is. He really knows how to respect people and in return.......he gets respect!!

    If only we should have done that for the last 8 yrs. we would be now in a much better place in the world.......... but NO.......we had moron Bush!

    Glad to have those two girls back in safe soil, THANK YOU BILL !!!

    August 5, 2009 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  2. Carolyn

    I know he has his faults (after all he is human) but he is one of the best Presidents we have ever had and maybe the best in my lifetime.

    August 5, 2009 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  3. Bob in Pa

    Great that they are out. As long as sensitive information or tax money was not involved.

    I guess Bill has made himself relevant again. Can you say "appointment to the UN" and "Secretary General" ? What a chance for the lefties of the World to unite.

    August 5, 2009 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  4. GI Joe

    Welcome Home, Ladies. Take a well-deserved rest and enjoy your families.

    August 5, 2009 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  5. Joe

    Bill and Hill 4-ever!!!

    August 5, 2009 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  6. I am The Great and Powerful Wizard of Rush

    Bush's UN warrior, John "Walrus" Bolton critized Clinton for negotiating the release of Ling and Lee because "we are rewarding bad behavior".
    The face of the Rebirthertea Party: No compassion, No ideas, No understanding.

    August 5, 2009 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  7. Rob

    Way to go "Bubba"

    August 5, 2009 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  8. DiBiase/Bad Newz, VA

    I knew they would eventually be freed. I was just wondering how were they going to be freed. I always thought it may be a rescue operation involving the CIA or Navy Seals. This situation just goes to show that diplomacy isn't dead and it is alive and well.

    August 5, 2009 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  9. Larry

    Thank you President Clinton.

    The Deomcratic Party is turning into a blockbuster. We'll show you how to get things done.

    Little man Bush just thought you had to send our young people to die to accomplish anything.

    Plenty died, nothing was accomplished. Bush, you and Cheney are war criminals.

    August 5, 2009 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  10. Jose

    Please someone enlighten me though – why do these "kids" or "so called reporters" go into countries illegally when they know they shouldn't? Then someone has to try and get them out. Does this make sense to anyone?

    August 5, 2009 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  11. Florida Democrat

    It takes a Clinton!! Actually, this was the amazing work of BOTH Clintons. Hillary has been working out the behind-the-scenes details for months trying to get those women free. "Thanks" to both of them is due.

    Love the Clintons! Wish we could trade in Obama for Hillary, then Bill can be Secretary of State. Talk about getting some good work done! That would be ideal!

    August 5, 2009 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  12. addon

    You what's amazing (?) The anti-obamaphobs these "cornfused" americans hate everything that happens positive for americans. If Obama does anything good...its bad for the country. Our POTUS has done herculean work to revive the economy. I wasn't looking forward to the next "Great Depression" were you?: Yet if you hear it from the Republicans, this is a inexperienced President with no qualifications. Heck ...Hawaii isn't a part of the U.S. so he's not citizen.

    Can you guys not sound like lunatics i.e. crazy fools and be objective just once? The GOP = THE PARTY OF NO IDEAS, NO RESPONSIBILITY, NO TRUTH – TO THE TENTH POWER

    August 5, 2009 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  13. TBA

    Fox News Network, basically wanted these two to die so they can blame it all on Obama. Soon as Fox News Network found about that Clinton went over there to talk to N. Korea to help free the 2. They jump on it saying that the N.Korea will used this against the US to debate on their nukes. Fox News is BLIND and are unbalance, they only favor Republicans.

    August 5, 2009 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  14. James, Phoenix AZ

    All Dubya wanted to do was to build fences. All Obama wants to do is to tear them down.

    Talking beats shooting every time. Well done.

    August 5, 2009 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  15. PK California

    The leader of N. Korea asked for Bill Clinton, and he graciously responded. YES WE CAN talk to our enemies!!! Thanks to all who made this homecoming possible!

    August 5, 2009 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  16. Keeth in California

    "Big win for Clinton"?!? How about "Big win for America!"

    August 5, 2009 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  17. Leo Kishore

    Bill is the man!!!!

    Hopefully these two girls will understand what boundaries to push and which not too now.

    Sorry, but anyone who doesn't take North Korea as serious as herpes is just asking for it.

    August 5, 2009 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  18. Dave

    This is how diplomacy is done. Quitely, behind the scenes. No bluster, no threats, no invasions. And headed up by a person respected world wide for his views and opinions.

    The opposite of this is the spiteful comments written in the Washington Post by John Bolton (remember him; he got the ambassador to the U.N. during George Bush through the back door). Bolton could not negotiate a hungry dog to a piece of meat.

    August 5, 2009 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  19. betty in Arizona

    When you want something done with respect...... send the best America has to offer. BILL CLINTON. He never called names, always treated allies and enemies with the respect he wanted America to have. Good for the Obama admin to call on him.

    We thank you for your sevice, Mr. Clinton

    August 5, 2009 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  20. Expat American

    President Clinton remains a true statesman.

    Well done Mr. President.

    August 5, 2009 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  21. Ren from Baltimore

    Amen-kudos to former President Clinton, and to those who worked behind the scenes to get our two journalists back.

    I'm sure they didn't mean to start such an international incident, or for Mr. Clinton to have to use his global political and personal prestige in this way. But here we are.

    Bless you, Mr. Clinton, and welcome back to you as well!

    August 5, 2009 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  22. ken

    will they repay their debts or go to jail for breaking the law and wasting tax payers dollars? congrats to bill but this wouldnt have happened if it wasnt for these nitwits..

    August 5, 2009 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  23. justme

    Once again, the man comes through! Thank you President Clinton! There are very few left that can accomplish what this man can. I am proud that he's on our side and sorry that he could not continue serving this country...wait...he is! Lucky us!!

    August 5, 2009 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  24. Neilz

    Wild Bill Rides Again! Nothing like a little down-home double barreled but-kissin' to illicit some humanitarian relief. And nobody better to do it, especially after the schoolyard insults being exchanged between Kim and Hillary. Nice shootin', Bill.
    And hey, if things are cool back on the ranch, you might want to ride on over to Iran. We got a couple of strays crossed the fence there, too.
    (And we could use some help getting the herd ready for the Drive to Healthcare.)
    Happy Trails, pard.

    August 5, 2009 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  25. Jon in CA

    ASK them WHAT they were doing in North Korea? What was their objective??

    No one wants to see innocent people thrown into jail... but US citizens get arrested EVERY day in other countries for valid reasons – without any care or concern from our government.

    WHY these 2 women??

    Oh wait.. they worked for Al Gore. That's right.

    August 5, 2009 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
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