Kevork Djansezian/Shangri-La/Getty Images
Bill Clinton and Al Gore talk with Laura Ling and Euna Lee after the former president returned from North Korea with the two journalists on Wednesday.
Bill Clinton and Al Gore talk with Laura Ling and Euna Lee after the former president returned from North Korea with the two journalists on Wednesday. Kevork Djansezian/Shangri-La/Getty Images
As they stepped off the private charter jet that brought them home, Euna Lee blew a kiss and bowed. Laura Ling held her hand over her heart and then raised both arms in victory. They walked into the embrace of their friends and families, including Lee's 4-year-old daughter, Hana, who hugged her mother tightly.
"The past 140 days have been the most difficult, heart-wrenching time of our lives," said Ling. "We are very grateful that we were granted amnesty by the government of North Korea, and we are so happy to be home."
Ling said that during their imprisonment, she and Lee feared they would be sent to a hard labor camp. They'd been sentenced to 12 years by the North Korean government for illegally crossing into the country during a reporting trip for Current TV. Ling said she and Lee had no idea what was ahead of them when their jailers summoned them.
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Laura Ling addresses a crowd gathered at the hangar.
Laura Ling addresses a crowd gathered at the hangar. Ann Johansson/Getty Images
"When we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton," said Ling, who thanked the former president and what she called his "supercool team" for coming to their rescue.
"We were shocked, but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end." She added, "Now we stand here, home and free."
President Clinton smiled but — uncharacteristically — had nothing to say to reporters. Former Vice President Al Gore did the talking. He heads Current TV, where the two journalists work. Gore had been working for their release ever since Ling and Lee were captured while working on a story about refugees in North Korea. On Wednesday, he told them they were never forgotten.
"Hana's been a great girl while you were gone," he said to Lee. "And Laura, your mom's been making your special soup for two days now."
Ling's older sister, Lisa, later told reporters that Ling had clearly lost weight and was exhausted.
"I can tell that she has gone through a lot," Lisa Ling said. "My sister has an amazing, amazing spirit, and she's a little weak right now, so I think it's going to take a little time to gather her wits."
Outside their home in North Hollywood, Ling's husband, Iain Clayton, said he was relieved to have his wife home. "The first thing I said was, 'Wow! I can't believe this. This is amazing. Then I told her how much I loved her."
While they were imprisoned, Ling and Lee also got a lot of love from strangers who followed online updates and campaigned for their release. Lisa Ling, a popular TV personality, helped keep the cause alive in the media.
She said it'll take time for her sister to get back to normal. One of Ling's first questions after landing in California was, "What's for dinner?"
"She's really, really anxious to have fresh fruit and fresh food," Lisa Ling said. "She told us about getting rocks in her rice. Obviously, that country has economic problems. Laura and Euna were fortunate they were served meals regularly."
Lisa Ling said the journalists never intended to cross the border from China into North Korea during their reporting trip. But she said that's a story they'll have to tell for themselves.