BURBANK, Calif. – Two American journalists jubilantly reunited with family and friends early Wednesday upon returning to the United States with former President Bill Clinton, whose diplomatic trip to North Korea secured their release nearly five months after their arrests.
The jet carrying Euna Lee and Laura Ling, reporters for Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV, and Clinton arrived at Burbank's Bob Hope Airport at dawn. Clinton met with communist leader Kim Jong Il on Tuesday to secure the women's release.
Lee emerged from the jetliner first and was greeted by husband Michael Saldate and 4-year-old daughter Hana. She hugged the girl and picked her up before all three embraced in a crushing hug as TV networks beamed the poignant moment live.
Ling embraced her husband, Iain Clayton, as teary family members crowded around.
"The past 140 days have been the most difficult, heart-wrenching days of our lives," Ling said, her voice cracking.
Thirty hours ago, Ling said, "We feared that any moment we could be sent to a hard labor camp."
Then, she said, they were taken to another location.
"When we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton," she said to applause. "We were shocked but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end, and now we stand here, home and free."
Clinton came down the stairs to applause. He hugged Gore, then chatted with family members.
Gore described the families of the two women as "unbelievable, passionate, involved, committed, innovative."
"Hana's been a great girl while you were gone," he told Lee. "And Laura, your mom's been making your special soup for two days now."
He also thanked the State Department for its help in the release.
"It speaks well of our country that when two American citizens are in harm's way, that so many people will just put things aside and just go to work to make sure that this has had a happy ending," he said.
After 140 days in custody, the reporters were granted a pardon by North Korea on Tuesday, following rare talks between Clinton and the reclusive North Korea leader. They had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally.
The women were kept in enforced isolation and fed poor-quality food, Ling's sister said.
"They were kept apart most of the time. ... On the day of their trial, they hugged each other and that was it," Lisa Ling told reporters outside her sister's home in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.
"She's really, really anxious to have fresh fruit and fresh food. She said there were rocks in her rice. Obviously, it's a country that has a lot of economic problems.
"The little bit that she was able to recount of her experience of the last 4 1/2 months has been challenging for us to hear," Lisa Ling said. "She's my little sister but she's a very, very strong girl and a determined person."
Ling's husband told reporters that his wife had spent more time in North Korea than in their North Hollywood home, which they bought in November shortly before she went overseas.
"It was very lonely," Clayton said. "One of the hardest things was obviously coming home every night, and there were reminders of her in the house."
The women, dressed in short-sleeved shirts and jeans, appeared healthy as they prepared to leave North Korea. They shook hands with Clinton before getting into the jet, exclusive APTN footage from Pyongyang showed. Clinton waved, put his hand over his heart and then saluted.
North Korean state TV showed Clinton's departure, and North Korean officials waving to the plane, but did not show images of the two journalists.
Speaking on the White House lawn just before leaving on a trip to Indiana, President Barack Obama said the administration is "extraordinarily relieved" that the pair has been set free. He said he had spoken to their families once the two were safely aboard a plane out of Pyongyang.
"The reunion we've all seen on television, I think, is a source of happiness not only for the families but also for the entire country," Obama said.
Ling was later seen entering her mother's home in the Los Angeles suburb of Toluca Lake, while Lee was spotted going into her home in Los Angeles.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Clinton will fill in Obama's national security team on what transpired during his trip as a private envoy to Pyongyang.
He reiterated that Clinton did not carry a message from Obama to Kim.
"If there wasn't a message, there certainly couldn't have been an apology," Gibbs said.
When asked whether the release of the journalists could lead to a breakthrough on other issues such as North Korea's nuclear program, Gibbs said that will depend on the actions of the communist regime.
"The people that walked away from the obligations they agreed to were not anybody involved on our side," Gibbs said. "It was the North Koreans."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hailed the journalists' release.
"I spoke to my husband on the airplane and everything went well," she told reporters in Nairobi, Kenya. "They are extremely excited to be reunited soon when they touch down in California. It was just a good day to be able to see this happen."
Ling, a 32-year-old California native, is the younger sister of Lisa Ling, a correspondent for CNN as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "National Geographic Explorer." Lee, 36, is a South Korean-born U.S. citizen.
They were arrested near the North Korean-Chinese border in March while on a reporting trip for Current TV.
The release also amounted to a successful diplomatic foray for the former president, who traveled as an unofficial envoy, with approval and coordination from the administration. He was uniquely positioned for it as the only recent president who had considered visiting North Korea while in office, and one who had sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright.
His landmark visit to Pyongyang to free the Americans was a coup that came at a time of heightened tensions over North Korea's nuclear program.
The meeting also appeared aimed at dispelling persistent questions about the health of the authoritarian North Korean leader, who was said to be suffering from chronic diabetes and heart disease before the reported stroke. The meeting was Kim's first with a prominent Western figure since the reported stroke.
Pardoning Ling and Lee and having Clinton serving as their emissary served both North Korea's need to continue maintaining that the two women had committed a crime and the Obama administration's desire not to expend diplomatic capital winning their freedom, said Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
"Nobody wanted this to be a distraction from the more substantially difficult issues we have with North Korea," he said. "There was a desire by the administration to resolve this quietly and from the very beginning they didn't allow it to become a huge public issue."
Discussions about normalizing ties with North Korea went dead when George W. Bush took office in 2001 with a hard-line policy on Pyongyang. The Obama administration has expressed a willingness to hold bilateral talks — but only within the framework of the six-nation disarmament talks in place since 2003.
North Korea announced earlier this year it was abandoning the talks involving the two Koreas, Japan, Russia, China and the U.S. The regime also launched a long-range rocket, conducted a nuclear test, test-fired a barrage of ballistic missiles and restarted its atomic program in defiance of international criticism and the U.N. Security Council.
Associated Press writers Jean H. Lee in Seoul, South Korea, Anne Gearan, Julie Pace and Steven R. Hurst in Washington, Lisa Leff in San Francisco, Tomoko A. Hosaka in Misawa, Japan, AP researcher Jasmine Zhao in Beijing and Matthew Lee in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects quote from sister to say "challenging." AP Video. Moving on general news and financial services.)