Aug. 5, 2009— -- In a tearful welcome home, American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were greeted by their families as they arrived back in the United States this morning after 140 days of imprisonment in North Korea.
The two landed at the Burbank, Calif., airport this morning, accompanied by former President Bill Clinton, whose landmark trip to the elusive nation secured the two's release. His former Vice President Al Gore today thanked his former boss and said that Obama administration officials had also been closely involved in the planning.
President Obama applauded the work of the former administration officials in bringing the two women back and thanked Clinton and Gore for their efforts.
"We are obviously extraordinarily relieved" and "very pleased with the outcome," Obama said. The president did not say how closely his administration had been involved in the planning and negotiation stages, but in a brief press conference after the California landing Gore said the Obama administration played an integral role.
"President Obama and countless members of his administration have been deeply involved in this humanitarian effort," Gore said, speaking at the arrival of the two reporters who worked for the channel he co-founded, Current TV. "They have really put their hearts in this."
The State Department today said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a role in her husband's trip and that the agency was "very involved."
Deputy State Department Spokesman Robert Wood said Obama made a request to President Clinton to see if he would be willing to take a "private humanitarian mission," which Clinton accepted. On July 24, National Security Adviser Jim Jones outlined the mission to Clinton, making it clear it would be strictly to pick up the journalists, not about nuclear issues.
Ling, 32, said Clinton's visit came as a shock to her and Lee, 36. The two had been sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp after their March arrest along the North Korea-Chinese border.
"We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard labor camp, and then suddenly we were told that we were going to a meeting," Ling said. "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."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in Kenya for a state trip, said she was "very pleased" to hear about the journalists' release.
"I had a very brief conversation with my husband, and we didn't get into the details," she said. "We have successfully completed a humanitarian mission, it was a private mission, but now we have to go back to the ongoing efforts to enlist the North Koreans in discussions the world wants to see them participate in."
The White House initially seemed to distance itself from Clinton's Tuesday visit, saying that it was a "solely private mission." But once the former president was off the ground with the two journalists, officials said that since the women's March arrest, the administration had spoken with the families regularly about the work they were doing to secure their release.
"We made clear in every communication we had with the North Koreans, and President Clinton made clear in all his conversations that this was a purely private humanitarian mission, being solely for the release of the two journalists," an administration official said. "And that in fact was completely separate from issues between North Korea and the international community. That it would remain crystal clear the separation here."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today that at "some point" Clinton would talk to Obama about the mission, but no time has been set yet for that discussion. Obama spoke to Clinton on the phone for a few minutes after the plane landed and thanked the former president for doing a "great job," Gibbs said.
While the trip may have been secretive, it had been in the works for months. In July, Lee and Ling told their families -- whom they were allowed to call weekly -- that the North Koreans specifically asked for Clinton to come to North Korea, and that they would be freed if he did.
The two women apologized for crossing the border from China into North Korea but today, Ling's sister, journalist Lisa Ling, denied they used "poor judgment."
"Based on the limited knowledge I have, I don't think they used poor judgment," the former co-host of "The View" said. "There's probably more that we don't know about."
Ling's father, Douglas Ling, told ABC News' Kate Snow that he never lost hope that his daughter would come home.
"I knew something positive was going to happen, and it happened," he said. "And I am so glad and I am so thankful for all the people and their prayers and thoughts."
Ling and Lee flew back with Clinton on a private Boeing 737 plane owned by movie producer Steve Bing, a close friend of the former president.
Their families said the two were relaxing and enjoying family time and food.