Journalists Rejoin Tearful Friends, Family in U.S.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009; 11:38 AM
BURBANK, Calif., Aug. 5 -- One woman approached China's border with North Korea as a seasoned foreign correspondent, the other as a sharp editor who was on her first trip abroad in her new role as a producer.
Laura Ling, 32, one of the two American journalists who arrived back in the United States on Wednesday after five months in captivity in North Korea, had reported from Sri Lanka, Iran, Brazil, Pakistan and Eastern Europe, among other places.
"She knows her way around the world," said Morgan Wandell, who supervised Ling at San Francisco-based Current TV after working with her at another startup, the Channel One news outlet that is broadcast into classrooms. "And she's a smart, prepared journalist. One of the things I take a little bit of issue with, she's not a cavalier risk-taker at all. She's very smart, and while she's curious and ambitious, she knows her limits, and she's certainly not a cowboy."
Euna Lee, 36, had been a standout editor at Current TV, the cable and Web network co-founded by former vice president Al Gore, and was breaking into producing via the route that had worked for Ling a decade earlier: hard work backed by language skills and cultural knowledge that could add immense value to a story that demanded discretion and delicacy. The women had traveled to the Chinese border with North Korea, where they were preparing a report about North Korean refugees.
"It was unfortunately her first assignment," said Annika Mandel, who was hired as a writer-producer at Current in 2005, about the same time Lee came on as a video editor, the person who ties reports together.
"She was the editor we all wanted to work with," said Mandel, who now works for a health insurer. "I knew that if I worked with her, my work was going to be 10 times better than if I was going to do it myself. She brought a really critical, creative eye to things."
The women were at once smiling and tearful when they arrived Wednesday morning at Bob Hope Airport on a chartered jet, accompanied by former president Bill Clinton, who arranged their release Tuesday during a trip to Pyongyang.
After embracing relatives and friends, including Gore, Ling and Lee stood before a bank of clicking and whirring cameras to thank the officials, colleagues and members of the public who, along with both their families, rallied to their cause and helped secure their release.
"We could feel your love all the way in North Korea," Ling said. "It is what kept us going in the darkest hours. The past 140 days have been the most difficult, heart-wrenching time of our lives. We are very grateful that we were granted amnesty by the government of North Korea, and we are happy to be home."
Friends said the carefully orchestrated effort by the women's families to secure their freedom mirrored, in many ways, the discipline, determination and devotion that are hallmarks of the former captives' lives.
"We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms," said a statement issued by the families on Tuesday. "We especially want to thank President Bill Clinton for taking on such an arduous mission and Vice President Al Gore for his tireless efforts to bring Laura and Euna home," the statement said. "We must also thank all the people who have supported our families through this ordeal, it has meant the world to us."
Gore and Current co-founder Joel Hyatt released a statement through the network Tuesday night, saying they were "overjoyed" at the women's release. "Our hearts go out to them -- and to their families -- for persevering through this horrible experience," they added.