Freed journalists home in US after NKorea Pardon
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.