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. S Callahan

    Thank You former President Bill Clinton, President Obama , and yes Kim .....the only saying Blessed Be the Peacemaker still applies.

    Please remember Bowe Bergdahl in your prayers....God has him very close to his heart.

    Stop with the political back bitting..there is a time for everything...right now...two souls have return to their families and that is what counts most.

    August 5, 2009 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  2. Gary

    I want to congratulate Bill Clinton on a job well done! Out of curiosity, I checked out Rush Limbaugh's web site. Limbaugh condems the attempt by Clinton, calls the Korean women "babes", says it'll take a week, and claims that President Obama has sold out America by supporting Bill Clinton's act. Limbaugh has no way of knowing the facts, and to call Korean women "babes" demonstrates his racial bigotry and prejudice against women in general. The republicans have no tolerance for success; hence it's still the Party of No!

    August 5, 2009 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  3. independent now

    Only Bill Clinton could have pulled this off. Kudos to Bill and Hilary

    August 5, 2009 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  4. Change in America

    I happy to see the 2 young American journalist release ...Thank You President Clinton and President Obama adminstration for great job done...I have to say these some racist people on here President Obama have work hard to get these young lady release...He work hard to rescue effort from the Marine to rescue the captain when prirates hostage one of our American citizen...

    Great Job President Clinton and President Obama

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

    Kudos to the former President for showing us what diplomacy can accomplish!

    August 5, 2009 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  6. BC

    Can you imagine George W. Bush trying to pull this off? They would probably not even let him enter the country. That is the biggest difference between the Clinton administration and the W. Bush administration – Bush made it so no one respects us anymore. Obama is getting us back to where we were with Clinton where we make our views known to the world, but not in an arrogant and disrepectful way. That's called smart diplomacy.

    August 5, 2009 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  7. David

    I think I'll keep my political opinions to myself in this instance and just say that I'm grateful to Pres. Clinton and everyone else who helped to secure the release of these two Americans – and that thanks goes to the N. Koreans, too! I'm proud to be an American!

    August 5, 2009 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  8. Tom Paine

    Oh, yes, thank you Bill....thanks for doing the tap dance for Kim Jong Il. I guess we'll find out later what Obama gave this crook as a ransom payment.

    August 5, 2009 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  9. Ken

    This just goes to show the influence, the respect, and the leadership that the world feels that President Bill Clinton represents. Thank you President Clinton .... for all you've given to this country as our president in the '90s and all that you continue to give us.

    August 5, 2009 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  10. Ron

    at least Billy boy is good for something even with his flawed policies as prez. unlike the POS prez we have today.

    August 5, 2009 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  11. Darren

    I know. John Bolton said we shouldn't have negotiated with N. Korea. That means these 2 ladies would have been in hard labor for 12 years. Also, Clinton stopped N. Korea from making Nukes through diplomacy. As soon as Bush and his excellent diplomacy began in 2001 the N. Koreans started the process of testing and they now having 6 nukes. It's inbelievable how much damage they caused in 8 years. Bolton and anyone else from that administration should just shut up already. They have no credibility because they were wrong about EVERYTHING.

    August 5, 2009 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  12. Laurie in Spokane

    I think it's wonderful that Bill Clinton could secure the release of these two women. However, I reaaalllly get annoyed by the news media referring to Clinton as "Mr. President". As far as I know, we have one President in the U.S. and that's Barack Obama. Clinton, and Carter, and Bush Sr, Bush Jr. are FORMER Presidents. I sure wish they'd be refered to that way.

    August 5, 2009 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  13. Observant

    Thanks to President Clinton.....Now, could you please share your expertise on the recovering the economy with Preside Obama. We (Americans) need your help, too

    August 5, 2009 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  14. Jacob

    Yet another moment that I am PROUD to be a Democrat!!! We've had plenty of those lately 🙂

    Bill, you've shown the country once again when you want to settle an international crisis, and don't want to waste billions bombing a civilization for seven years, you send a Democrat to fix the situation! WAY TO GOOOOOO!!!!!!!

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

    Thank you to all who had a part in this , most of America has prayed for this outcome, so kudos to Pres Obama , VP Gore and a worldwide respected Bill Clinton . Thank God for people like the Clintons and Bill Clinton's world foundation efforts to make this world a better place!

    Shame on the likes of former ambassador Bolton and other GOP that have been critical of this wonderful outcome!

    August 5, 2009 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  16. Observant

    HATS OFF TO to President Clinton.....Now, could you please share your expertise on the recovering the economy with President Obama. We (Americans) need your help, too

    August 5, 2009 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  17. Bubba

    Now let's hear the Party of no ideas tell us how bad it was for Clinton to return these dumb kids to their families. Come on, GOP, start yapping.

    August 5, 2009 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  18. Laura

    Where was Hillary?!?!?!?!??!?!

    August 5, 2009 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  19. docndn

    Thank you Mr. President!

    August 5, 2009 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  20. Lily

    Mr. Clinton,

    Your actions are commendable. I respect the risk you took to bring these women home from such a dangerous country. Glad to see that you are using your influence for the greater good of the world. Some people should take note.

    Honored to have you as an American.

    August 5, 2009 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  21. clifford in New York

    Had Bush still been President the North Koreans wouldn't have dared to detain the two journalist!

    August 5, 2009 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  22. rand

    Diplomacy works. Thank You President Clinton. This should show the naysayers that the cowboy politics of Bush doesn't work. The bullying of the past administration only added tensions to already strained relationships.

    However, there will always be that percentage of the population who will stand by their ignorant hero. Those with "short comings" that need overcompensating for like macho attitudes, wars, and big trucks.

    August 5, 2009 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  23. Angela in LA

    Im really happy they are home. I wish them well.

    August 5, 2009 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
  24. Paul C.

    I am glad they are back but I have issues with these individuals, such as the 3 in Iran, who deliberately put themselves in harms way.
    Don't put your hand in the lions mouth if you don't want to get bit.

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

    I can't even begin to imagine the joy the family must feel! I'm so happy you women are home.

    Welcome back! :o)

    August 5, 2009 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
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