Emotional return for U.S. reporters jailed in North Korea

BURBANK, Calif. — Almost any airplane hangar could double as a soundstage, and in the gray light of Wednesday's dawn, Hanger 25 at Bob Hope Airport began to feel more than a little like another Southern California morning on the set.

At 5:52 a.m., word was passed that the plane had landed. "Ladies and gentlemen," an announcer's voice intoned, "please help me in welcoming home Laura Ling and Euna Lee!"

Two slender, dark-haired women scampered down the stairs, the first pausing on the fourth step to bow — and, just like that, a space that a moment earlier had felt huge and sterile welled with the kind of emotion that rises from the chest to the throat, then catches there.

Lee, 36, reached the bottom of the stairs first, threw one arm around her husband, Michael Saldate, the other around their daughter, Hana, and then appeared almost to collapse as she dropped to one knee to face the 4-year-old. Taking the girl's hands in her own, Lee wore an expression so intense that from a distance it looked like grief. Hana graduated from preschool during her mother's 140-day captivity.

Behind them, Ling, 32, had her husband around the neck. Iain Clayton, an investment banker from Britain, released his wife to her mother, Mary, who then spent some time dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.

Former President Bill Clinton stayed out of sight for a respectable interval then appeared at the top of the stairs, pressed his fingers together in that little clapping gesture of his, and descended to warm applause. He was followed by John Podesta, his former chief of staff, who ran President Barack Obama's transition operation.

Former Vice President Al Gore, who co-founded Current TV, a San Francisco cable and Web network that employs Lee and Ling, waited in a suit of sincere blue to embrace both men.

"We could feel your love all the way in North Korea. It's what kept us going through the darkest hours," Ling said after the group assembled behind a microphone.

A seasoned correspondent, Ling spoke without glancing at notes. But she sniffed more than once, struggling for composure. "Thirty hours ago, Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea," she said. "We feared that at any moment we could be sent to a hard-labor camp."

She read out a list of thank-yous, naming Steve Bing, a close Clinton friend and Hollywood producer whose Shangri-la Productions owns the plane and its hangar. He bankrolled the rescue.

She made no reference to their March 17 capture by North Korean border guards while she and Lee were reporting a story about refugees fleeing to China. Exactly what happened has never been clear; the Current TV cameraman who escaped capture has declined all interviews.

Lisa Ling said her sister was craving fresh food and a sushi dinner.

"She's really, really anxious to have fresh fruit and fresh food. . . . There were rocks in her rice," Lisa Ling said. "Obviously, it's a country that has a lot of economic problems."

They were held in a guest house and had not yet been sent to the labor camp because of medical concerns, the sister said. Laura Ling suffers from an ulcer, while Lee has lost 15 pounds since being detained. Ling had been seen regularly by a doctor, her sister said.

Clinton did not speak publicly, but he fielded a call from Obama, who stepped into the Rose Garden to declare "the reunion that we've all seen on television" a source of happiness for the entire country. Clinton's staff meanwhile released a statement underscoring the "humanitarian" nature of a mission that the Obama administration continued to describe as private.

Laura Ling's husband, Clayton, meanwhile, confirmed that the idea of sending the former president was passed on from her captors by his wife, in one of several telephone calls the prisoners were permitted over the four months. "She said it was her sense and her feeling that a visit by President Clinton would be successful in securing their release," he said. "And what we obviously did was inform Vice President Gore and the State Department of the nature of that call."

The information added resonance to Ling's account of being led into a room by her captors and seeing "standing before us, President Bill Clinton."

"We knew immediately in our hearts" that they would be freed, Ling said.

After Ling, only Gore took the microphone, thanking Clinton, the patient, disciplined families and the thousands of strangers who had joined efforts to assure this "happy ending."

Then the families and travelers shifted their mingling to the far side of the plane, beyond camera range. They were still chatting a half-hour later when Hana emerged from a restroom with her grandmother, Karen.

"All right? All right!" Karen Saldate said to the girl, who nodded, then set off across the concrete floor in the direction of her mother, skipping.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Emotional return for U.S. reporters jailed in North Korea 08/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 6, 2009 12:14am]

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