Freed Journalists Home In US After North Korea Pardon

Two American journalists freed by North Korea say they're relieved to have the nightmare over and be back with their family and friends.

Laura Ling, who was held in the reclusive communist country for nearly five months with Euna Lee, says the two women had feared they could be sent to a labor camp at any time. Instead, they were shocked when they were brought to a room Tuesday where they saw former President Bill Clinton.

Ling told journalists in Burbank, California, on Wednesday after a flight from Korea that the last 40 days had been the most difficult and heart-wrenching of the women's lives.

Two American journalists freed by North Korea have returned home to the United States on a flight with former President Bill Clinton.

The jet carrying Euna Lee and Laura Ling landed at Burbank's Bob Hope Airport early Wednesday. The women spent more than four months detained in North Korea.

The reporters were granted a pardon by North Korea on Tuesday, following rare talks between Clinton and the reclusive leader Kim Jong Il. They had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally.

In exclusive APTN video showing their release, the women were shown dressed in short-sleeved shirts and jeans as they boarded the plane in North Korea.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Former President Bill Clinton and two American journalists flew back to the United States on Wednesday for what was expected to be an emotional reunion with family and friends after the reporters spent the last four months detained in North Korea.

Euna Lee and Laura Ling were granted a pardon by North Korea following rare talks between Clinton and the reclusive leader Kim Jong Il. They had been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally.

The women, dressed in short-sleeved shirts and jeans, appeared healthy as they climbed the steps to the plane and shook hands with Clinton before getting into the jet. Clinton waved, put his hand over his heart and then saluted.

North Korean officials waved as the plane took off. Clinton spokesman Matt McKenna said the flight was bound for Los Angeles, where the journalists will be reunited with their families.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hailed their 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's father, Doug, told reporters outside his home in Carmichael, Calif., that his daughter's release was one of the best days of his life. He said he would travel to the Burbank airport to meet his daughter's plane early Wednesday, and planned to bring American flags, yellow ribbons and banners to welcome her home.

"I'm going to go down there and see my little girl," he said.

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, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, is the mother of a 4-year-old.

Their expected arrival was a jubilant conclusion to a more than four-month ordeal for the women, who were arrested near the North Korean-Chinese border in March while on a reporting trip for Current TV, the media venture founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

Gore was expected to be at the Burbank airport to greet the women, who were sentenced in June for illegal entry and engaging in "hostile acts."

Hillary Clinton had urged North Korea last month to grant them amnesty, saying they were remorseful and their families anguished.

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.

But the backchannel genesis of the mission was not immediately clear, whether Obama called on him, North Korea asked for him or his wife suggested him.

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.

State media said Clinton apologized on behalf of the women and relayed President Barack Obama's gratitude. The report said the visit would "contribute to deepening the understanding" between North Korea and the United States.

A senior U.S. official said the reporters' families and Gore asked the former president to travel to Pyongyang to seek their release and that Clinton's mission did not include discussions about issues beyond that. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe events leading up to the Clinton trip and the women's release.

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.

Kim smiled broadly for a photo standing next to a towering Clinton. He was markedly thinner than a year ago, with his graying hair cropped short. The once-pudgy 67-year-old, who for decades had a noticeable pot belly, wore a khaki jumpsuit and appeared frail and diminutive in a group shot seated next to a robust Clinton.

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."

Speaking out for the first time since their capture, Gore said in a joint statement with Current co-founder Joel Hyatt that everyone at the media outlet was overjoyed by the prospect of their safe return. "Our hearts go out to them and to their families for persevering through this horrible experience," it said.

The Lee and Ling families thanked Obama, the secretary of state and the State Department.

"We especially want to thank President Bill Clinton for taking on such an arduous mission and Vice President Al Gore for his tireless efforts to bring Laura and Euna home," it said. "We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms."

In North Korea, Clinton was accorded honors typically reserved for heads of state. Senior officials met his private unmarked plane as it arrived Tuesday morning.

Video from the APTN television news agency showed Clinton exchanging warm handshakes with officials and accepting a bouquet of flowers from a schoolgirl.

Kim later hosted a banquet for Clinton at the state guesthouse, Radio Pyongyang and the Korean Central Broadcasting Station reported. The VIPs and Kim posed for a group shot in front of the same garish mural depicting a stormy seaside landscape that Albright posed for during her historic visit to Pyongyang in 2000.

However, the decision to send Clinton was kept quiet, revealed only when he turned up Tuesday in Pyongyang accompanied by John Podesta, his one-time White House chief of staff, who also is an informal adviser to Obama.

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.

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  • by The flood Location: Greenville on Aug 6, 2009 at 06:03 AM
    Ummm actually it has been REPORTED that the reason the girls were released was because we agreed to sit down with them. Given Obama's past record of "dealing" with international crazies and giving all concessions that equates to N Korea continuing to produce nukes. The world has seen Obama's weakness and any crazy dictator can get away with whatever they want. This was a win for Lil Kim' not us.
  • by James Location: Dare County on Aug 5, 2009 at 07:14 PM
    They should have been kept there till there time was up. The crossed the border knowing it was wrong and did anyway. I only wish the USA had the same policy for entering illegally. Time any money could be better spent stopping the illegal entry in the country and getting rid of those already here that are illegal.
  • by Wolfgang Location: Chocowinity,NC on Aug 5, 2009 at 05:29 PM
    Obama I have to say Obama was smart here send Slick Willy. He could sell sand on the beach. I would have sent President Carter. I wonder what kind of side deals are being made here? Did Al Gore pay a lot of money? I could see it now every town in America get a Korean Restaurant, and all monies go to Kim Jong 2 Now, where is Hillary. Is North Korea too important to send the little girl, looks like it? What is she doing? Looks like Obama don't care as long as she is not Obamas TV media. Making him look bad again. Hilary in 2012?
  • by Cactus Location: Strabane on Aug 5, 2009 at 05:11 PM
    Barlow for president and Lavon for VP, sounds like the same thing we have now.
  • by Barlow Location: Winterville on Aug 5, 2009 at 04:31 PM
    I'm sure the deal was done before Clinton ever got there. But it had nothing to do with concessions on nukes to North Korea. It had to do with using your head instead of running your mouth. Clinton had the North Korean nuke deal under control until he left office and "Cowboy George" got in there (Toughest little chicken hawk ever got to be president) and screwed things up. Thank god we have somebody with some smarts running the country now.
  • by The flood Location: Greenville on Aug 5, 2009 at 03:19 PM
    Bill Clinton had nothing to do with the release of these 2 girls. It had alot more to do with Obama saying "It's ok you can keep building your nukes and we won't say anything about it." Once again true freedom and peace were discarded for favorable headlines. The deal was done before slick willie even got there. He was just along for the photo op. and because lil' kim rejected Gore.
  • by Disgusted Location: Greenville on Aug 5, 2009 at 11:55 AM
    This story and all the media attention it's getting is rediculous! I mean, these girls left their families (and small children) behind to go to a war-torn country just to get a story. Then, they're captured and put in jail. Why is that our problem?? I mean, we have men and women overseas fighting and dying every day for OUR freedom and protection! Where is all their media attention and hype when they come home (sometimes in a body bag)??? And, where is all the government help for them and their families??? Some things in this country are MESSED UP!
  • by Keith Location: Greenville on Aug 5, 2009 at 11:51 AM
    Good Job Bill. He is truly the best President this country has had. I know he has had his bad moments, but he is well loved by Foreign Leaders.
  • by Russ Location: Henderson on Aug 5, 2009 at 10:48 AM
    It's a shame we don't make stupid people pay for their rescues.
  • by Obama Snake Oil Co Location: Washington on Aug 5, 2009 at 10:19 AM
    Al Gore send these two young ladies over there, it was his responsibilty to get them back. When you do something this stupid in the first place it only speaks on how they think they are so above everthing. I am sure Al thought his people would be opened with wide arms. He was lucky this time.
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