"Thirty hours ago," she said, fighting back tears as she spoke in a California airplane hangar, "Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea. We feared that at any moment we would end up in a hard-labor camp. Then we were told that we were going to a meeting. We were taken to a location, and when we walked in 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 about to be over."
Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, who work for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV, were officially pardoned Tuesday following their meeting with former President Bill Clinton and his meeting with North Korea's leader Kim Jong II.
Their plane touched down shortly before 6 a.m. at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif. Family members there to greet them included Ling's husband, parents, her sister Lisa Ling and Lisa's husband Paul Song. From the Lee family were Lee's husband Michael Saldate, 4-year-old daughter Hana, mother- and father-in-law.
At 6:16 a.m. the two women deplaned and both separately embraced their families in what could only be categorized as highly emotional reunions. "We're going to let these families have a proper and full reunion," former Vice President Al Gore, who had also been instrumental in their return, later said at the airport.
Bill Clinton chose not to speak, but released a statement. "I am very happy that after this long ordeal, Laura Ling and Euna Lee are now home and reunited with their loved ones," it read. "When their families, Vice President Gore and the White House asked that I undertake this humanitarian mission, I agreed. I share a deep sense of relief with Laura and Euna and their families that they are safely home."
Before boarding their chartered plane at Pyongyang Airport, the healthy looking women, dressed in short-sleeved shirts and jeans, exchanged handshakes with Clinton, according to news footage. The former president waved, placed his hand over his heart and then saluted as the plane took to the skies. North Korean officials also waved.
Hillary Clinton's WarningSpeaking on Wednesday's Today show, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said about her husband, "He was so happy and so relieved to bring these two women home." She was also careful to point out that this was "a private humanitarian mission" and should not be confused with an act of diplomacy that represents official U.S. policy toward North Korea.
Secretary Clinton also warned all Americans to stay out of unfriendly territory. President Obama was scheduled to comment on the women's return in a speech to be delivered on the White House South Lawn Wednesday morning.
On Tuesday, after the women's pardons had been announced, their families said in a joint statement, "We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms."
Lee, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, and Ling, a California native, were initially detained by North Korean soldiers on March 17 near the country's border with China. They were sentenced in June to 12 years hard labor for "committing hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry."
Additional reporting by HOWARD BREUER
Kevork Djansezian / Getty; Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty