Published August 05, 2009
In a tearful reunion, the two American journalists jailed in North Korea since March walked into the embrace of their families at an airport hangar in Los Angeles Wednesday morning after returning home with the help of former President Bill Clinton.
Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, dressed in short-sleeved shirts, appeared healthy as they walked off the plane. Ling raised her arms in celebration as she walked down the steps. Lee first greeted her 4-year-old daughter Hannah.
"Now we stand here home and free," Ling said.
Clinton walked off the private plane a few minutes after the journalists, shaking hands with the families. He said in a written statement that he shares their "deep sense of relief" that the reporters have returned safely.
President Obama said he was "extraordinarily relieved" at their return.
"The reunion that we've all seen on television I think is a source of happiness not only for the families but for the entire country," Obama said, adding that he spoke with the families Tuesday after learning that Lee and Ling were on the plane home. He thanked Clinton as well as former Vice President Al Gore, who co-founded the Current TV company that employed the journalists, for working toward their release. Gore spoke briefly at the hangar in Burbank, Calif.
The two women were arrested in March along the China-North Korea border and accused of illegally sneaking into the country and engaging in "hostile acts." They were sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp in June.
Their return home came after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il issued a "special pardon" for them. Clinton made a surprise visit to the communist nation Tuesday morning to negotiate their release.
During the visit, Clinton met with Kim as well as the two reporters.
Ling said Wednesday that she and Lee were "shocked" when they were first taken to a room Tuesday and saw Clinton standing there. She said that just 30 hours ago, the two women feared that they could be taken to a hard labor camp to serve out their sentence at any moment. She said the sight of Clinton gave them great relief.
"We knew instantly in our heart that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end," she said, thanking Clinton's "super cool team."
"The past 140 days have been the most difficult, heart-wrenching time of our lives," she said. "We are so happy to be home."
The public breakthrough in talks was reached in the course of a day. But sources said the framework for the journalists' release had been negotiated ahead of time.
Administration officials said that the families were told "sometime in June" that the journalists would be released if Clinton came to get them. The families told Gore, who passed on the message to the Obama administration.
"We worked this issue very hard," an official said, adding that the administration confirmed through "various means" that the prisoners would be released if Clinton traveled to North Korea.
Officials said Clinton met with Kim for over an hour and then had a two-hour dinner with him. They said they don't know whether North Korea's nuclear program, which the United States wants to rein in, was discussed.
Through a representative, the families of the reporters released a statement saying they were "overjoyed" at the news.
"We are so grateful to our government: President Obama, Secretary Clinton and the U.S. State Department for their dedication to and hard work on behalf of American citizens," the statement said. "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. We must also thank all the people who have supported our families through this ordeal, it has meant the world to us."
During their imprisonment, officials said the Swedish government acted as an intermediary in North Korea and were able to get medicine to Ling and Lee.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said her husband did not offer an apology during his visit, despite reports to the contrary from North Korean state media. She also said the release of the journalists was viewed as a "totally separate issue" from efforts to re-engage North Korea diplomatically and work toward dismantling their nuclear program.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the former U.N. ambassador who has traveled to North Korea before and was considered a possible candidate to negotiate the journalists' release, told FOX News Wednesday that the meeting should serve to lessen tensions between the two countries.
"This does provide an opening possibly for us and the North Koreans to at least start talking again, but that's about it," he said.
Richardson said Hillary Clinton was "very involved" in the negotiations, calling them part of an "administration strategy." He said the Obama administration could not send a sitting official since North Korea does not want to talk to members of the administration.
FOX News' Major Garrett contributed to this report.