The release came suddenly, heralded by a familiar face.
In an emotional homecoming Wednesday at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, journalist Laura Ling told family members and friends about the moment when she and her colleague, Euna Lee, knew they were about to be freed after nearly five months of detention in North Korea.
"We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard-labor camp," Ling 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."
Their private plane, lent for Clinton's North Korean negotiation effort by his friend, Hollywood producer Stephen Bing, landed shortly before 6 a.m. and taxied to a heavily secured hangar to meet the waiting crowd, which included former Vice President Al Gore and reporters and photographers.
Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, walked off the plane with Clinton and were greeted with kisses and hugs from sobbing family members. An emotional Ling expressed her thanks for all those who helped in winning their freedom.
"We could feel your love all the way in North Korea," Ling said. "It is what sustained us in our darkest hours. We are very grateful we were granted amnesty by the government of North Korea."
By midmorning, Ling was resting at her house in North Hollywood with her mother, sister and best friend as television cameras and trucks clogged the normally quiet street. Her sister, Lisa, also a journalist, told reporters outside that Laura was exhausted. "She can barely speak she's so tired," she said.
Her sister craved fresh food and told her that in North Korea she and Lee had been fed rice that included small rocks, she said, adding, "I know there will be a sushi dinner at some point really soon."
Their mother, Mary, said she had prepared a special soup for her daughter's return home and that she had felt both wishful and scared during the last few months.
Lisa Ling thanked everyone who had worked to secure the release and said the family would be "forever indebted" to the Clintons, President Obama and Gore, who co-founded Current TV, the cable and satellite channel for which the two women were working when they were arrested by the North Koreans in March.
"We are especially appreciative of our government, who really came to the rescue of Laura and Euna," she said.
Laura Ling's husband, Iain Clayton, said that his wife told him during their most recent phone conversation that she believed a visit from Clinton "would be successful in securing their release."
Clayton said reuniting with his wife was amazing. "It was just the best thing in my life . . . to see her come down from that plane and on the steps," he said.
Marc Foulkrod, chairman and chief executive of Avjet Corp., the Burbank company that manages the aircraft Clinton took on the mission, confirmed that it belongs to Bing. The producer, a major Democratic Party donor, will pay for the flight, which could cost $100,000 for fuel alone, Foulkrod said.
The Boeing jet left Burbank at 3 a.m. Monday and was in the air for 26 hours, with stops in Alaska and Japan on the way to North Korea and in Japan on the way back.
Ling and Lee were arrested near the North Korean border with China while reporting on fleeing refugees.
In June, they were convicted and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally entering the country and for "hostile acts."
As the two journalists walked off the plane Wednesday, Ling pumped both fists in the air. She was embraced by her sister, mother and husband, followed by other family members. After several moments of hugs among relatives amid the clicks of cameras, Clinton emerged from the plane to applause. He later flew on to his home in Chappaqua, N.Y.
During most of Wednesday's airport news conference, Lee's 4-year-old daughter, Hana, stayed in her mother's arms, her hand resting on Lee's back or clutched behind her neck.
"Euna, Hana's been a great girl while you were gone," Gore said, "and Laura, your mom's been making your special soup for two days now."
Gore thanked everyone involved in getting the pair released and said Obama and his staff "have been deeply involved in this humanitarian effort. . . . They have really put their hearts in this."
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
Key developments in the case of U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were pardoned Wednesday by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il:
March 17: Ling and Lee are detained by North Korean border guards during a reporting trip to China
March 22: North Korea announces their arrest
March 31: North Korea says that preliminary investigation confirms they entered the country illegally and that they will stand trial
June 4: Trial begins
June 8: Ling and Lee convicted, each sentenced to 12 years of hard labor
July 9: State Department says it is "deeply concerned" about the sentences; the White House says it is "engaged through all possible channels" in seeking the journalists' release
Aug. 5: Ling and Lee are pardoned at the request of former President Clinton, who traveled to North Korea to negotiate their release
Sources: Korean Central News Agency; Associated Press