LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, returning to an emotional welcome after being freed from custody in communist North Korea, said on Wednesday it was the love of family and even total strangers that kept them going through their ordeal.
After the aircraft that brought them home parked inside a vast hangar at Burbank Airport, a beaming Ling, 32, raised her arms in triumph as she descended the steps and Lee, 36, crouched down to swoop up her 4-year-old daughter, Hana, who she had not seen for five months.
Accompanied by former President Bill Clinton, who secured their release, the reporters for a cable television venture co-founded by Clinton’s former vice president, Al Gore, arrived at dawn at the suburban Los Angeles airport.
“To our loved ones, friends, and to the complete strangers with the kindest of hearts who showed us so much love and sent us so many positive thoughts and energy: We thank you,” Ling said as she fought back tears of relief to be home.
“We could feel your love all the way in North Korea. It is what kept us going in the darkest of hours. It is what sustained our faith that we would come home,” she said as relatives, friends and reporters gathered around.
She thanked Clinton and his “super-cool team” who went to Pyongyang to secure their release as they faced the possibility of serving a sentence of 12 years hard labor after being detained on a reporting trip to the China-North Korea border.
“The past 140 days have been the most difficult heart-wrenching time of lives,” Ling said. “We are very grateful we were granted amnesty by the government of North Korea and we are happy to be home and we are just so anxious now to spend some quiet time getting reacquainted with our families.”
CLINTON‘S LOW PROFILE
Though it was Clinton who secured the women’s release in a meeting with North Korea’s reclusive leader Kim Jong-il, the former president uncharacteristically avoided the spotlight.
He remained on the plane, a Boeing business jet owned by his friend, the Hollywood producer Steve Bing, for several minutes after the women emerged and did not address reporters and camera crews assembled in the hanger.
His silence may reflect the delicate political situation surrounding his mission, which has been portrayed by Washington as private and not linked to tense efforts to revive talks on halting reclusive North Korea’s nuclear program.
“I am very happy that after this long ordeal, Laura Ling and Euna Lee are now home and reunited with their loved ones,” Clinton said in a statement released through his office. “When their families, Vice President Gore and the White House asked that I undertake this humanitarian mission, I agreed.”
Ling thanked Clinton for his efforts. U.S. officials and Ling’s family have said the initiative to ask Clinton to go to Pyongyang to collect the women came from North Korea.
“Thirty hours ago, Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea. We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard-labor camp,” she said.
”And then suddenly we were told that we were going to a meeting. We were taken to a location and when we walked through the doors we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton.
“We were shocked but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end. Now we stand here home and free.”
Laura Ling’s sister, the journalist Lisa Ling, later said outside her home that the two women had not meant to cross into North Korea without permission.
“As they left U.S. soil they never intended to cross the border,” Lisa Ling said, although she added: “As journalists you never know ... things can be unpredictable.”
Lisa Ling also said the two women had been kept separated for most of the four months they were jailed in North Korea.
Editing by David Storey