LOS ANGELES - Two American journalists freed by North Korea tearfully reunited with their families in the United States yesterday while Washington tried to play down talk of a breakthrough with Pyongyang.
Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, reporters for an American cable television venture, arrived at Burbank airport near Los Angeles aboard a private jet with former President Bill Clinton, who secured their release after meeting with North Korea's reclusive and ailing leader, Kim Jong Il.
Ms. Ling thrust her arms in the air as the two beaming women descended from the plane to an emotional reunion with their families. Ms. Lee hugged Hana, the 4-year-old daughter she had not seen for five months.
After several moments of hugs among relatives amid the constant clicks of cameras, Mr. Clinton emerged from the plane to applause.
Ms. Ling said they both feared they could be taken to a hard labor camp when they were led instead Tuesday to a location where they were surprised to find Mr. Clinton was waiting for them.
"We knew instantly in our hearts that the nightmare of our lives was finally coming to an end. Now we stand here home and free," she said.
Iain Clayton, Ms. Ling's husband, said "it was the best feeling of my life" to see his wife descend from the plane to his arms.
"I looked in her eyes," he said, "and saw she was seeing her family at the bottom of the steps, and I saw the joy and relief in her."
Ms. Ling said both women had sensed their country's emotions when they were in prison, even without constant communication.
"We could feel your love all the way in North Korea. It is what sustained us in our darkest hours. We are very grateful we were granted amnesty by the government of North Korea," she said.
Neither woman offered details of the treatment in North Korea, which has a reputation of being a brutal government.
But Ms. Ling's sister later told reporters that her sister was "a little bit weak" and it would take some time for her to gather her wits and speak about her captivity.
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 Ms. Lee has lost 15 pounds since being detained. Ms. Ling had been seen regularly by a doctor, her sister said.
Lisa Ling said her sister was craving fresh food and a sushi dinner will be on the agenda soon.
"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."
The two journalists, who work for Current TV, co-founded by Mr. Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, were arrested on March 17 for illegally crossing into North Korea from China and had been reporting on the trafficking of women. They were both sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in June.
Mr. Gore was at the airport to welcome them home yesterday, and he thanked everyone involved in getting the pair released and said President Obama and his staff "have been deeply involved in this humanitarian effort. ... They have really put their hearts in this."
He also noted Hollywood producer and philanthropist Stephen Bing's contribution to the effort.
The journalists arrived home on a plane owned by Mr. Bing, according to Marc Foulkrod, chairman and CEO of Avjet Corp., which manages the aircraft.
Mr. Bing, who is friends with Mr. Clinton, will also pay for the flight, which could cost $100,000 for fuel alone, Mr. Foulkrod said.
Mr. Clinton did not speak on arrival, but said in a statement that the women's families, Mr. Gore, and the White House had asked him to undertake the humanitarian mission to Pyongyang.
The former president spoke briefly with Mr. Obama by telephone and will brief national security officials on his meeting with Kim, the White House said.
Mr. Obama called "the reunion that we've all seen on television" a source of happiness for the country.
Ms. Ling's husband, Mr. Clayton, meanwhile, confirmed that the idea of sending the former president was passed on from her captors by his wife, in one of several phone 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."
Mr. Clinton's visit was the first high-level U.S. contact with North Korea in nearly a decade.
North Korea painted the meeting between Mr. Clinton and Kim as high-level talks the North Korean leader will certainly use to boost his image at home.
But the Obama Administration yesterday adopted a wait-and-see stance over whether the humanitarian breakthrough will lead to renewed talks on the more pernicious question of the North's nuclear weapons.
"This can't hurt, but it won't necessarily help," said a senior administration official involved in North Korea policy. He spoke on condition of anonymity.
The White House and State Department worked aggressively to dispel the notion that U.S. concessions on the nuclear front led to the release of the journalists.
Aides to President Obama said that North Korea must demonstrate that it is ready to abide by past pledges to dismantle its nuclear weapons, and should return to six-nation nuclear talks that it pulled out of this spring.
The North has been seeking direct talks with the United States.
"I don't think we know yet" whether there will be an improved atmosphere for talks, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said. "The ball is really in the North's court."
The stern talk was aimed at dispelling any impression in Pyongyang that it had scored an instant improvement in relations with Washington by releasing Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee.
Mr. Clinton was the highest-ranking U.S. visitor to North Korea in nine years. Such visits are eagerly sought by the image-conscious North Koreans, and photographs appeared to show Kim elated at the turn of events.34.05349 -118.2453
Two American journalists freed by North Korea tearfully reunited with their families in the United States on Wednesday while Washington tried to play down talk of a breakthrough with Pyongyang.