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. Scout

    AMEN–of course, the hate-filled Republicans will criticize and call him a Communist, but who cares what they think? They've shown what they are, and their holier-than-thou, bigoted, homophobic, sexist agenda has been soundly defeated in the last 2 elections. Good for Bill–the master of diplomacy.

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

    Great job President Clinton!

    August 5, 2009 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  3. Joyce from South Carolina

    Our country should be deeply appreciative of this good work by President Clinton. I know I certainly am thankful for the return of these two young women.

    August 5, 2009 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  4. Vic Nguyen

    It's very unselfish for president Bill Clinton doing this. It took a great man to do what he did with the N. Korea. Kudos to president Bill Clinton.

    August 5, 2009 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  5. Julie

    What an emotional video that was for me to watch, just joyfull to see them back in the US, and back with their families. Bill Clinton you are an amazing human being, Thank you!

    August 5, 2009 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  6. schmeckel

    To bad Hillary could not do her job. I am glad her husband bailed her out. I hope she took notes on how to present yourself to the foreign leaders of the world. You know, swallow your pride and talk to them with respect. I wonder if he will go get the other morons that got nabbed in Iran.

    August 5, 2009 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  7. Stephanie

    I truly believe that only President Clinton could have achieved this. He is brilliant and obviously respected throughout the world. We are so lucky to have him and hopefully, with this success, his critics will be reminded of that. I'm so happy that these women are home.

    August 5, 2009 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  8. Luis Maldonado

    We miss you Bill

    August 5, 2009 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  9. Theresa

    Too bad there is a 2 term rule about the Presidency of the USA.

    Bill Clinton is an amazing leader and a wonderful man.

    Thanks President Clinton for bringing these 2 ladies home safely to their families.

    August 5, 2009 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  10. Nuradiin

    This proved that carrots work more than sticks

    August 5, 2009 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |

    THANK YOU Pres Obama and the Clintons for the safe return of these two women.

    August 5, 2009 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  12. docndn

    Thank you Mr. President!!! I am amazed by watching other media outlets the hypocrisy of media bias. Calling this a "photo op" instead of celebrating the glorious return of two of America's beautiful daughters! We as a nation are getting sick of the petty name calling and smear. I as a conservative am especially embarrassed that we cannot celebrate this homecoming for what it is instead of just being greatful that President Clinton brought home 2 women were wrongfully charged. Thank you CNN for your coverage. Thank you Mr. President for your continued service. May God bless the 2 ladies and their families.

    August 5, 2009 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  13. M. A. Speranza

    A big shout out to President Bill Clinton! You are the man!! When Laura Ling told how they walked in the room and there was President Bill Clinton standing there – I cried. Can you imagine how they felt!!
    Thank you for getting them home!

    August 5, 2009 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  14. Olivia

    Good for the USA!

    August 5, 2009 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  15. Gerald

    Was this not supposed to be his wifes job ?

    August 5, 2009 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  16. Randy, San Francisco

    America should be thankful to President Bill Clinton for his service to this country. He is a great statesman and humanitarian worthy of a Nobel award/

    August 5, 2009 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  17. welcome home

    the marines came and evacuated us out of a falling govt. back in 1997, it is a feeling very difficult to put into words

    August 5, 2009 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  18. qvn

    The image of president Bill Clinton standing there when Ling and Lee was supposed to go to a meeting will ever last in their memories.

    August 5, 2009 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  19. Corinne

    Thank you, Mr. Clinton! It was heartwarming to see those young women returned to their families and you must have felt like Superman being able to do it for them. It bothers me to think that some in this country would feel that such a wonderful act would be something to be construed as a mistake. The idea of a nice gesture is something that seems to be lost from the American thinking process. I applaud your work and am proud you were there in a time of need.

    August 5, 2009 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  20. Diana

    GOD BLESS BILL CLINTON AND GOD BLESS THOSE BRAVE WOMEN AND THEIR FAMILIES! This is the best news in awhile and I'm grateful that we have the people in power now when this happened. I'd hate to think what would have happened to these women if it happened at the same time last year.

    August 5, 2009 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  21. barnhardt in NC

    The right wing loonies will have to struggle to spin this as a negative, but they always come up with something. Keeping their mouths shut is never an option.

    August 5, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  22. Thomas

    You Go BOI!!!!

    August 5, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  23. the southern progressive

    huge win for diplomacy... major blow to shoot-em-up cowboy style.

    i think this was the work of many including former president bill clinton, the state department and the white house administration. and also for kim jong il, who apparently does have a price... wonder what else he would do for clinton ;), it would appear to the world that this was done without the world having to back from its stance on a nuclear north korean... for disbelievers, this is what a brain will do for you, if you let it.

    August 5, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  24. basanti

    i cannot remember when was the last time that i watched news and had a tear or two of joy roll down my eyes! this was so emotional. and it was beyond embarssing to see hannity scream in fox news that he wondered what clinton and the admn have given North Korea in return! i mean, how can such vile ppl be allowed on a TV channel? watching glen beck and hannity (i catch their unwanted glimpses while channel surfing) is way more worse than what a certain jeremiah wright had said! and still, i dont see any uproar against such extremists! i know i know, i should just enjoy the moment of these journalists' release, but then i cant help but get worried about the hatred that these right wing extremists whip up! it's a dangerous sign!

    August 5, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  25. lee

    Just like immediately after 911 in New York-Mr. Clinton was in the streets hugging people, listening to them, talking with them...he is a wonderment. If I needed the calvery to come-I would want to see him standing there with his hand out to me.

    He looks good too. 🙂

    August 5, 2009 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
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