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Freed Journalists Home in U.S. After North Korea Pardon

Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee arrive home to their families at Hangar 25 on August 5, 2009 in Burbank, California after being released by North Korean authorities yesterday.
Ann Johansson
Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee arrive home to their families at Hangar 25 on August 5, 2009 in Burbank, California after being released by North Korean authorities yesterday.

Two American journalists freed by North Korea returned home to the United States on Wednesday for a jubilant, emotional reunion with family members and friends they hadn't seen in nearly five months.

The jet carrying Euna Lee and Laura Ling, reporters for Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV, and former President Bill 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 Saldage and 4-year-old daughter Hanna. She hugged the girl and picked her up before all three embraced in a crushing hug.

Ling embraced her husband Iain Clayton as teary family members crowded around.

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 at the foot of the stairs, then chatted with family members.

Gore described the families of the two women as "unbelievable, passionate, involved, committed, innovative."

"Hanna'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 harms 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.

The reporters were granted a pardon by North Korea on Tuesday, following rare talks between Clinton and the reclusive North Korea leader. Ling and Lee had been arrested near the North Korean-Chinese border in March while on a reporting trip for Current TV and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for entering the country illegally.

Clinton went to Pyongyang as a private citizen acting as an envoy for the United States to work out a deal to win the journalists' freedom.

In a statement released as the former president appeared with the pair at the Burbank airport, Clinton called their plight a "long ordeal" and said he shared "a deep sense of relief with Laura and Euna and their families that they are safely home."

President Obama proclaimed the U.S. government "extraordinarily relieved" over the release of two American journalists by North Korea, extending praise to Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore.

Speaking on the White House lawn just before leaving on a trip to Indiana, Obama said, "The reunion we've all seen on television, I think, is a source of happiness not only for the families but also for the entire country."

Obama made no mention of the overall tense relationship between Washington and the regime headed by Kim Jong Il, and he said that "all Americans should be grateful to both former President Clinton and Vice President Gore for their extraordinary work."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that Clinton will brief Obama's national security team on what transpired during his trip to Pyongyang for talks with Kim Jong Il. Gibbs said he believed that the former president at some point also would speak directly with Obama about the trip.

At the same time, he reiterated that Clinton did not carry a message from Obama to Kim.

"If there wasn't a message, there certainly couldn't have been an apology," Gibbs said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hailed the release of the journalists.

"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."

A wealthy Hollywood producer reportedly paid for the flight that carried the former president and two journalists home from North Korea.

Marc Foulkrod, chairman of Avjet Corp., the company that manages the plane, said the aircraft is owned by Stephen Bing, a longtime Democratic donor and fundraiser.

Bing raised at least $100,000 for Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, in addition to giving the personal maximum $2,300. The Clinton Foundation Web site says Bing gave between $10 million and $25 million to the former president's charity. Bing also was a multimillion-dollar donor to pro-Democratic groups that ran ads against Republican President George W. Bush in the 2004 election. Calls to Bing's company and publicist were not immediately returned.

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