Jailed Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee Arrive in California with Bill Clinton

Laura Ling and Euna Lee arrive in California with Bill Clinton.

August 4, 2009, 7:47 AM

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.

North Korea and U.S.: A Win-Win Situation for All?

North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il ordered the release of the two jailed journalists through "a special pardon," the country's state-run news agency reported Tuesday.

Clinton's trip fulfilled one of North Korea's two demands -- a visit from a high-profile emissary. Their first -- an apology -- came from his wife a few weeks ago.

"Kim Jong-Il probably is thinking about succession and he may have thought this may be the only chance I get for a former president to come," said former governor of New Mexico and former secretary of state candidate Bill Richardson. "It has been their dream for years to have an American president come to North Korea."

And despite a few tensions in the hour and a 15-minute meeting between Clinton and Kim, both sides got what they wanted. For the North Korean leader, it was a chance to boast a visit from a high-profile U.S. leader and an opportunity to pose for pictures with Clinton, and for the United States, the safe return of the two imprisoned journalists.

But what really happened during the meeting was conveyed quite differently.

North Korea's Central News Agency said Clinton apologized for the two female journalists "illegally crossing the border and committing a grave crime against our nation."

But Secretary Clinton, in Kenya for a state trip, said that any rumors that her husband apologized for the journalists were "not true. That did not occur."

The White House also denied reports that Clinton carried a message from President Obama to Kim Jong-Il.

As for nuclear talks, the administration said that's a separate issue. Hillary Clinton said in Kenya that the administration had been working hard on the release of the two journalists, but the issue of nuclear nonproliferation was always considered a "totally separate issue."

But officials say the topic likely came up.

"I'm sure President Clinton gave President Kim his views on denuclearization. And his views are well-known," a government official said. "In addition to discussing U.S. journalists ... he did press very hard on the positive things that could flow from the release of the South Korean detainees."

The short-term victory could have long term implications for the Obama administration's tense relationship with the elusive North Koreans.

"Bill Clinton's trip may result in sticking point to multilateral negotiations and bilateral negotiations," said ABC News Consultant and professor of political science at University of Georgia, Han Park.

Richardson said Clinton was right in taking the trip and his objective should be separate from other issues between the United States and North Korea.

"I don't believe it's a cave in," he told ABC News. "We get substantial benefits from a cooling of the relationship but we also get the two journalists back."

But some say North Korea could use the visit to flex its own muscles in the region.

"North Korea is going to use this for propaganda purposes," said former State Department official Peter Brookes. "The Americans -- the arch enemy -- are coming to North Korea to talk to our deal leader Kim Jong-Il."

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told Fox News he is concerned the negotiations could set a dangerous precedent.

"This is a classic case of rewarding bad behavior, the seizure of these two innocent Americans," he said. "Obviously all of us want to get them out, but we want it done in a way that doesn't increase the risk in the future for other Americans."

And the move also has implications for other detained Americans. On Friday, Iran detained three Americans who strayed into the country while hiking in a town on the Iraq-Iran border.

"Each situation has to be evaluated on its own merits," Wood said when asked today if the State Department fears Iran might also demand an envoy for the three Americans it has detained. "They all have their own peculiar circumstances. So I don't think... we can sit here and give you a cookie-cutter approach to how we deal with these various situations. We have to take them, as I said, on their own merits. I don't think there's any talk about a precedent here."

Laura Ling and Euna Lee

Ling and Lee were detained by North Korea in March for illegally entering the country. At the time, they were working on a story about human trafficking for Current TV along the Chinese-North Korean border. The two admitted crossing the border illegally and apologized.

But in June, Ling and Lee were found guilty of "hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry" and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor by North Korea's highest Central Court.

Many feared that the two would be used as bargaining chips by North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions remain undeterred despite tougher sanctions and stern rhetoric.

Ling's sister, National Geographic contributor Lisa Ling, expressed her concern to ABC in an interview with "Good Morning America" in June.

"She has a recurring ulcer," Lisa Ling said. "And we know that she has been allowed to receive some medication. But we, we know that her doctor is very concerned. He has written a letter, appealing to the North Korean government to at least allow her to see a physician. And as we all know, ulcers are exacerbated by stress."

Lee's husband, Michael Saldate, left to take care of the couple's 4-year-old daughter, said he has told his daughter Hannah only that her mother is at work.

Earlier this summer, Lisa Ling told ABC News' Bob Woodruff that she dreamed of the moment of her sister's release.

"It's a scene that I've kind of replayed over and over in my head. I just hope it comes soon," an emotional Ling said.

Clinton would be the second former U.S. president, after President Carter, to visit the reclusive communist state. Carter traveled to Pyongyang in 1994, when Clinton was in office, and met with then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, father of the current leader Kim Jong-Il.

Carter's visit led to a breakthrough deal in which North Korea was to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for oil. The deal -- the so-called 'Agreed Framework' -- fell apart after President George W. Bush listed North Korea as part of the 'axis of evil'.

Clinton was widely expected to make a state visit to Pyongyang during his time in office, but it never happened, as his administration at the time chose to focus on Middle East issues.

ABC News' Kate Snow, Sunlen Miller and Yunji de Nies contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events