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. Tannim

    Was the nightmare that was over the North Korean imprisonment, or spending the plane ride back alone with Bill Clinton doing Lewinskys?

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

    We are so lucky to have Bill Clinton. Happy to hve the ladies home.

    August 5, 2009 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  3. RR

    If had a 4 year old child at home, I would definitely not be trapsing around the North Korean border! What was Lee thinking?

    August 5, 2009 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  4. caminito

    A win for Bill Clinton, a prestige loss for the US. But of course, the
    Clintons do not care!

    I really would not care if these two 'American" very careless and
    dumb women, stay a while in a N-Korean jail. Persons which are
    not allowed to perform activities in their countries shall not try to do so under the cover of an US passport. This being valid even in outrageously human-right-less countries as North Korea.

    August 5, 2009 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  5. sms29s

    Welcome home, ladies.

    August 5, 2009 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  6. Paul from Phoenix

    Big win for Bill, Big loss for Hillary

    August 5, 2009 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  7. Bill Seymour

    Look closely at Bill's hands in the posed picture. Do I see what I think I see?

    August 5, 2009 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  8. AmericanFlag

    God Bless Bill Clinton. And Barack Obama, too. Looks like Obama is well on the way to restoring the US to the peace & prosperity of the Clinton years. When are Bush & Cheney going to prison?

    August 5, 2009 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  9. smokesignals

    Thank you, President Obama, for sending Mr. Clinton.

    August 5, 2009 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  10. not a Jackson or a Palin fan

    I'm not trying to take anything away from Clinton, but anyone who thinks that he did this all on his own without any behind the scenes involvement from the Obama administration is truly naive. Even Bill Clinton can't just hop on a private plane and fly to the capital of communist North Korea.

    August 5, 2009 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  11. Tannim

    I also wonder if there's a travel embargo on North Korea, then how could he legally go there as a private citizen? Something doesn't add up here.

    August 5, 2009 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  12. Roger

    Gee & Baby Bush couldn't get anything done whilw HE WAS IN office.

    August 5, 2009 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  13. Frances

    The Party of No will find some way to make this a negative I guarantee it.

    August 5, 2009 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  14. jim

    Given certain people's responses to the news the Bill was going to North Korea, I can't wait to see how they spin this into a bad thing.

    August 5, 2009 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  15. John

    Yes, he was a great president. But you should understand, that Bill does things that make Bill look good. That's the main reason.

    August 5, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  16. Nancy in Illinois

    I cried watching them reunite with their families. Congratulations to President Clinton on a job awfully well done. It was great to see him and VP Gore hug after I know their relations have been strained. Great job, everyone! Thank you to the people of Sweden who helped facilitate this successful outcome. It was so nice to see good news on TV. I'm so happy for Laura and Euna and their families. Now, let them get some good food and sleep!
    President Clinton makes a great goodwill ambassador! (All you tin-foil hat right wingnuts are going crazy that President Clinton accomplished this, but too bad!)

    August 5, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  17. Paul from Kissimmee

    I've never been a big Clinton fan, but I must say that I'm glad he got them out. He's able to do more as an ex President than Obama is able to do in the White House. I think N. Korea used it as a photo op, but if that's all they got, so be it. I can't imagine what those families went through. Thank God we didn't let Americans die in a labor camp in N. Korea.

    August 5, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  18. Chandler

    Wow, great news for the former captives but don't believe the hype that Bill did anything except show up as a part of North Korea's grandstanding. For all you Clinton lovers out there, go ahead and use this "event" to back up you useless rhetoric about how the DEM's are going to "fix" America. Us conservatives will have the White House back in about 3 years and begin to clean up the mess Obama made just like Bush did with Clinton's mishaps...or at least tried to.

    August 5, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  19. Rick W

    Bill's the only one beside his wife who could have done this,
    the man goes on and on helping his fellow human beings
    while other country's torture and kill there own.

    August 5, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  20. Arlene Krieger

    I've fallen in love with Bill Clinton all over again. He's my hero. Go Bill Go!!!

    August 5, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  21. Clait

    Great Job President Clinton! And great job Gore.

    This is an excellent example of pure diplomacy as a means to break down cold war-type barriers.

    This was not about bowing to the North Koreans, it's about dealing with them; ignoring unfriendly countries is no way to bring them into the democratic mainstream.

    Really a good day for the Clintons. Bill makes inroads with the North Koreans and Hillary makes an incredibly important trip to Africa, finally showing them that they are a priority to the USA.

    A good day for all Americans.

    August 5, 2009 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  22. SHAY

    Glad they are back. But what did we give them to get them back? Reality is–something besides just being Bill Clinton got them released. But that is the way this world works and I'm sure alot of prayers went into getting them back as well. May God be with them and their families and Bless them more.

    August 5, 2009 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  23. Rod

    If I was drawing a picture post card card today, it would be a picture of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton standing side by side with the old Hallmark slogan that said, "When you care enough to send the very best!"

    And that's the truth! Mr. President, no two ways about it, you are the best! Thank you!

    August 5, 2009 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  24. Angus McDugan

    Why could Hillary not get the job done? Something's up...

    August 5, 2009 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  25. GuyInVA

    Allow me to applaud President Clinton. He did the right thing. This coming from a guy who is somewhere to the political right of Jesse Helms (okay, I'm joking... just a little). It's great that these women are home.

    Now, allow me to address beachgirl. You're a pathetic twit. No matter what happens, people like beachgirl take it as an opportunity to attack President Bush. This isn't about him or anyone other than these journalists. I'm surprised she didn't accuse Bush/Cheney of selling these poor women to that fat little mental patient. President Obama is in charge now. Shouldn't you be happy? Or are you experiencing a little buyer's remorse? Who cares.

    August 5, 2009 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
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