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. CYNIC

    If President Clinton does respect people, does he still respect Monica Lewinsky or even his wife Hillary?

    August 5, 2009 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  2. brian

    I still do not think that this negates Bill Clintons destructive policies that have led use to the current economic crisis. ACORN and free rides have put us here namely Bill Clinton policies.. I hope you remember that next time good old bill gets out on a high horse

    August 5, 2009 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  3. Anonymous

    I give a lot of respect to Clinton. The best move he made to was to not address the crowd at the conference. He stood back humbly and let the families reunite. Well done Bill and congrats to Euna and Laura and families on your release.

    August 5, 2009 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  4. Jorge Villa

    Bill Clinton is awesome! I'm proud he was and still is an American President!

    Thank you CLINTON

    August 5, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  5. S M R

    Only the Dems could pull this one off. We have a Great Political Team that is making a difference in not only the USA but the World.

    August 5, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  6. Leon Reid

    What a response when called to duty. Hats off to Mr President!!!!!!!!!!!

    August 5, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  7. Zippertheslipper

    Bill Clinton is THE MAN and did what I expected of him, no biggie. He accomplished great things during his tenure as President and he still continues to exhibit the traits of a man that can do anything he puts his mind to. The asian babes were saved from a 12 year future of digging rocks, toiling in the hot Korean sun and freezing their butts off in the Korean extreme cold climate, remember the Frozen Chosen of Korean War fame. Kudos to Bill Clinton and those two lady journalists for getting back safe and sound.

    August 5, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  8. tim

    Bill went was eager for a two-on-one in the high mile club.

    August 5, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  9. Dick Weed

    He's a shameless womanizer in his personal life, but who cares. Clinton is the only American with the gravitas and charisma to pull off this release. Obama should resign and we should amend the Constitution to allow Clinton to run again for Prez. This incident shows how weak and pathetic Obama really is and that the rest of the world (at least N. Korea) thinks he's a clown.

    August 5, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  10. Hugo

    I thought Sweden's Ambassador was the guy that orchestrated and obtained their release? How did slick Willie get in the picture, is he now taking note from Jesse Jackson's play book? What a great deceptive political move so the Obama Administration can finally claim a victory in a time lamented in losses! I wonder if Bill ordered a double decker Oriental sandwich for lunch on the flight back?

    August 5, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  11. shucks

    The republicans need to take note. This is how diplomacy works. This is how a leader acts. This is what the USA has been known for except for the last 8 years. Yes this is everything that the republican party can't offer. Congratulations former President Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration. Job well done without guns and religion.

    August 5, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  12. Susan North Dakota

    Thank You, President Clinton. I am so proud to be an American,
    I was disilusioned by Bush and his inability to relate to people on any level, now THE PRIDE IS BACK.

    August 5, 2009 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  13. GGMAIL

    Once again President William Jefferson Clinton comes through for the real people of America – not big business, not special interest – but the real people who are America.

    Thank you again, Mr. Clinton. The USA is so fortunate to have you represent our interest and our side.

    August 5, 2009 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  14. Ren

    Kudos ex-president!! What you have done is priceless!!

    August 5, 2009 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  15. Marc from San Diego

    Where is the praise from the conservatives? If it where Billy Christol or Shooter Cheney securing their release, there would be praise as far as the eye could see and Fox News would declare it a national holiday.

    August 5, 2009 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  16. Steve from North Carolina

    I didn't vote for him, but I have to admit that Bill Clinton knows how to get things done. His continued efforts on behalf of our country and for humanitarian causes is to be commended. Unlike Jimmy Carter, Bill is still contributing in a positive way to our country. We should all tip our hats to him for this feat.

    Thank you Bill and welcome home girls!

    August 5, 2009 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  17. indeeptrouble

    Clinton once again identifies himself as one of the great communicators of the world. Maybe he can clone himself and run for president again in 2012.

    August 5, 2009 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  18. Marry

    Very well done! Thank you for fine diplomacy! This is how problems should be solved and not in the Bush/Cheney way!! Those 8 years where horrible! May they never come back!

    August 5, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  19. MC

    Folks should pause for a few minutes and understand what happened here – President Bush called Pyongyang a terrorist state and now we're engaged in nuclear brinkmanship. Alternatively, Presidents Clinton and Obama show respect to foreign countries and their leaders and are thus able to facilitate the release of two American citizens. Big difference . . . kudos again to Obama and Clinton

    August 5, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  20. Boston Irish

    Thanks, Bill, for a job well done. It's sad that even when someone does something great like he did, someone always has to trash someone to make their point. Just because you, Beachgirl, did not like Bush or his policies, why do you have to drag his name into this?? It's all about BILL CLINTON, not Bush.

    August 5, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  21. Anonymous

    Like it or not he is still the man to get the job done

    August 5, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  22. Ervin Raab

    All it takes to get things done is to have some rapport with whom your dealing with.

    Did you see the pictures of Kim Jong? The guy was lit up like a Christmas tree.

    This was a win-win for both sides, and maybe we can get back on track with negotiating with North Korea in some meaningful way.

    Thanks Bill, and all the people behind the scenes.

    August 5, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  23. Deb

    Thank you President Clinton.
    I voted for you twice and would vote for you again if I could and after President Obama served his two terms.
    Job well done. Welcome home ladies.

    August 5, 2009 01:41 pm at 1:41 pm |
  24. Tom in Wheaton, Illinois

    Nice work, Bill. We appreciate it.

    August 5, 2009 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  25. ion

    That moron of Bush kept us safe all these years, he won the Iraq war and put pressure on the terrorists, including North Korea. I came from a communist country and I know what is that. Maybe soon we can enjoy that stuff right here. Regarding Bill, I'd like to know the price we paid for his brave journey. Sounds very nice to free some innocent people, but there are more people like that in different prisons from Iran, for example, what about them?

    August 5, 2009 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
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