US journos reunited with families

BURBANK: Muffled sobs and a heartwrenching embrace between a mother and her daughter provided an emotional end to a 140-day nightmare for former North Korean captives Euna Lee and Laura Ling.

The two US journalists emerged from a chartered Boeing 737 jet into a chilly aircraft hangar at Bob Hope Airport as dawn broke to be greeted by family and loved ones at the foot of a staircase below.

Laura Ling, 32, smiled and waved her hands in jubilation as she descended the steps to a throng that included her husband, sister and parents.

Her fellow former prisoner Euna Lee, 36, however had only one thing on her mind as she rushed to embrace her husband Michael Saldate before hugging her tiny daughter Hana, 4, tightly as other relatives moved in.

Ling and Lee were sentenced to 12 years hard labour by North Korea in June after being arrested in March near the reclusive Stalinist state's border with China as they filmed a report on human trafficking.

The two were pardoned by North Korea and freed after a high-profile diplomatic effort spearheaded by former US President Bill Clinton, who accompanied the journalists on their flight home.

Ling, her voice trembling with emotion as she addressed a crowd of around 200 journalists, described the ordeal as "the most difficult, heartwrenching time of our lives." The lightning speed of the diplomatic effort to free her and Lee had taken both women by surprise, she said.

"Thirty hours ago Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea. We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard labour camp," she said. "And then suddenly we were told that we were going to a meeting. We were taken to a location and when we walked 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 finally coming to an end. And now we stand here home and free." After thanking Clinton and his "wonderful, amazing, supercool team" who had traveled to Pyongyang to secure the journalists release, Ling also paid tribute to President Barack Obama's administration.

Yet Ling said it was the kindness of strangers that had helped sustain the two women during their darkest moments in captivity.

"To our loved ones, friends, colleagues, and to the complete strangers with the kindness of heart who showed us so much love and sent us so many positive thoughts and energy, we thank you," Ling said. "We could feel your love all the way in North Korea. It is what kept us going in the darkest of hours. It is what sustained our faith that we would come home." "We are so happy to be home, and we are just so anxious right now to be able to spend some quiet, private time getting reacquainted with our family. Thank you so much," she said.

Former US vice president Al Gore, co-founder of the television station that employed Ling and Lee, had hugged his old friend and colleague Clinton as he disembarked from the plane, which belongs to entertainment industry mogul Steve Bing, a prominent contributor to Democratic Party causes.

"It speaks well of our country that when two American citizens are in harm's way, that so many people would put things aside and just go to work to make sure that this has had a happy ending," Gore told reporters before turning to address Ling and Lee.

"I want you know, your families have been unbelievable," Gore told the two women. "Passionate, involved, committed, innovative -- you'll hear a lot of stories and they're looking forward to hearing stories from you." Ling's sister Lisa later told reporters the two journalists had not planned to cross into North Korea when they set out on their story.

"I really haven't talked specifics about what actually happened that day. We know, as we've said, and she will confirm, that when they left US soil, they never intended to cross the border," she said.

"As journalists, when you're in the field, you never know what is going to arise and things can be unpredictable and whatever happened that day, she will tell you when she is ready to talk about it. "But based on the limited knowledge that I have, I don't think they used poor judgment."