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U.S. Journalists 'home and free' after North Korea pardon

ROBERT JABLON | 8/6/2009, 9:59 p.m.

After months of being left to live alone in fear and hunger, wondering if they might ever be allowed to return to their families, two American journalists held captive in Korea learned in just a heartbeat that they would be going home. The moment, said Laura Ling, came when she and fellow reporter Euna Lee were summoned to a meeting with their captors and suddenly saw the familiar figure of former President Bill Clinton.

"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," Ling said during an emotional airport reunion with her family and that of Lee's.
Both reporters sobbed and embraced their husbands and Lee's 4-year-old daughter, Hana, as they were reunited with them Wednesday in a hangar at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank following a 9 1/2-hour flight from Japan. It was their last stop following their release Tuesday from North Korea. While questions swirled about the delicate negotiating dance that led to their freedom, Ling, her voice sometimes shaking with sobs, only talked about the pair's gratitude to all those who worked for their release.

"We could feel your love all the way in North Korea," she said. "It is what kept us going in the darkest of hours, and it is what sustained our faith that we would come home."

Neither woman offered details of their treatment in North Korea, which has a reputation for a brutal government and has struggled through famine. Ling's sister later told reporters her sister was "a little bit weak" and it would take some time for her to be able to speak about her captivity.

"She's really, really anxious to have fresh fruit and fresh food. ... There were rocks in her rice," Lisa Ling said outside her sister's home in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley. "Obviously, it's a country that has a lot of economic problems."

She said Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, rarely saw each other during their 4 1/2 months of captivity.

"They actually were kept apart most of the time. ... On the day of their trial, they hugged each other and that was it," she said.

Lee and Ling, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV, were working on a story about the trafficking of women when they were arrested in March. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor after being convicted of illegally entering North Korea. Both were pardoned following talks between Clinton and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

Lisa Ling said her family had only four telephone conversations with her sister during her captivity. During one, she said her sister asked that they write to Lee "and tell her that I'm thinking about her, and I love her." She said her sister and Lee were held in a guest house, having been spared the labor camp because of concerns about their health. Lee lost 15 pounds during her detention. Laura Ling, who suffers from an ulcer, was seen by a doctor, her sister said.

Both arrived at the airport with Clinton aboard a Boeing jet owned by Steve Bing, a multimillion-dollar film producer, friend of Clinton's and contributor to Democratic causes.

Lee, who emerged from the plane first, wept and hugged her daughter as she and the girl were wrapped up in an embrace from her husband, Michael Saldate. Ling threw up her arms in joy before descending the plane's stairs and embracing her husband.

"Hana's been a great girl while you were gone," Gore, who was at the airport to greet them, told Lee. "And Laura, your mom's been making your special soup for two days now."

He thanked the State Department for its help in winning their release. Clinton didn't speak.

The release amounted to a successful diplomatic foray for the former president, who traveled as an unofficial envoy with approval and coordination from the White House. His visit came at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries over North Korea's nuclear program.

His meeting also gave North Korea an opportunity to attempt to dispel persistent questions about the health of its leader, who was said to be suffering from chronic diabetes and heart disease before reportedly suffering a stroke last August. It was Kim's first meeting with a prominent Western figure since the reported stroke.

Ling's sister said her family "had a sense that the government had agreed to send President Clinton" but didn't know whether the release was predetermined before his arrival.