The reporters, who were arrested on March 17 and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally entering the country, were granted a pardon by North Korea on Tuesday after Clinton met with reclusive leader Kim Jong Il.
Lee and Ling landed at Burbank, Calif.’s Bob Hope Airport, where they descended from the plane and greeted their families inside a hangar in a tearful reunion.
Ling spoke briefly with reporters, thanking all the people who campaigned for their release, and said she and Lee believed they would be moved to the hard labor camp at any time. On Tuesday they were instead led to a location where Clinton was waiting for them.
“We were shocked, but we knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end,” Ling said.
Listen to Ling’s full statement plus comments from former Vice President Al Gore:
The two reporters work for a cable television venture co-founded by Clinton’s former vice president who greeted them and also expressed his thanks to Clinton for completing the mission. Clinton went to Pyongyang on the secretly planned trip as a private citizen acting as an envoy for the United States, and at the request of both the families and Gore.
Gore was the Obama administration’s first choice for the trip, but that choice was rejected by North Korea, the Washington Post reported.
President Barack Obama made a brief statement Wednesday from the White House after the reunion.
“We are obviously extraordinarily relieved,” President Obama said. “The reunion that we’ve all seen on television is a source of happiness not only for the families but for the entire country.”
Listen to President Obama’s full remarks:
However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned reporters against reading too much into the humanitarian mission, saying there is no connection between the event and the nuclear tensions between the nations.
“We have always considered that a totally separate issue from our efforts to re-engage the North Koreans and have them return to the six-party talks and work for a commitment for the full, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” she said, according to Reuters.
“The future of our relationships with the North Koreans is really up to them. They have a choice.”
The extent of former President Clinton’s discussion with Kim has not been reported, but the official Korean Central News Agency reported that “Clinton expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong Il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists and that, “Clinton courteously conveyed to Kim Jong Il an earnest request of the U.S. government to leniently pardon them,” reported the Post.
Ling and Lee were originally arrested while making a documentary about the trafficking of North Korean women to China.
Doug Ling, Laura Ling’s father, told CNN Wednesday was “one of the best days in my life,” but that he always believed the reporters would come home.