Tuesday's sudden and dramatic end to Laura Ling's and Euna Lee's 4 1/2-month-long ordeal triggered celebrations in Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where friends and family waited anxiously for the pair to board a plane and leave North Korea.
“Isn’t that wonderful!” said Jerry Wang of Davis, Ling’s uncle and a physician at Kaiser. “There are so many emotions, it’s tough to process.”
Wang reacted after former President Bill Clinton secured a special pardon for Lee, 36, and Ling, 32. Ling grew up in Carmichael and graduated from Fair Oak’s Del Campo High School. Clinton traveled to the communist country a day earlier to negotiate the pair’s release and escort them home.
Ling’s father, Doug, told the Associated Press outside his home in Carmichael that his daughter’s release was one of the best days of his life.
“It’s one of the few times something positive has happened to me, besides having the two girls,” Doug Ling said, referring to Ling and her sister, Lisa, a correspondent for CNN, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “National Geographic Explorer.”
Doug Ling said he was heading to Southern California to meet his daughter, who he said was scheduled to fly into the Burbank airport, just north of Los Angeles, early today. “I’m going to go down there and see my little girl,” Doug Ling said.
The journalists landed on the international stage after being arrested by North Korean authorities while they were reporting on trafficking of women and children on the border of China and North Korea for San Francisco-based Current TV.
North Korea’s state-run media said the two recorded themselves crossing the frontier, with one pocketing a stone as a souvenir.
“All of us at Current are overjoyed at Laura and Euna’s safe return,” the network said in a statement Tuesday. “We will have more to say in the days and weeks ahead. But for now, all our thoughts are with Laura and Euna and their families, who have shown remarkable courage and initiative for the 140 days of this ordeal.”
Lisa Ling spearheaded a global campaign for the pair’s release. Their families, including Lee’s 4-year-old daughter, appeared on international news outlets believed to be monitored in Pyongyang.
They apologized for possible mistakes the journalists had made, and appealed for their release on humanitarian grounds. A groundswell of grassroots efforts, organized on the social-networking site Facebook, led to vigils across the nation. On July 17, the four-month anniversary of the journalists’ detention, two Sacramento women started 350-calorie-per-day diets to bring attention to conditions in North Korea’s labor camps.
Dawn Capp, 36, an employment attorney for the University of California, Davis, and Jacquelline Marshall, 55, an English professor at Sierra College, have been eating rice-based meals to emulate those served in the camps.
Capp and Marshall welcomed news of the journalists’ release Tuesday, but they will continue their crusade for a full month. Both have lost almost 20 pounds.
“I’m thrilled they’re out,” Marshall said. “But I still have a lot of problems with the rest of the people detained there.”
In a Web posting, the Lee and Ling families thanked U.S. government officials for helping secure the journalists’ pardons.
“We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms,” they said. This was the first overseas assignment for Lee, who grew up in South Korea, graduated from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and calls Los Angeles her home.
Even during imprisonment, Lee’s first priority was her daughter Hana. She sent an urgent message to her actor husband, Michael Saldate, through the Swedish ambassador – a reminder to register their daughter in Korean immersion summer school.
“This story brought tears to my eyes,” wrote family friend Mallika Chopra on her blog. “Sitting in captivity halfway around the world, a mom is still a mom.”
Laura Ling graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, and has worked for Channel One News, producing reports from countries such as Sri Lanka, Iran and Myanmar. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband Iain Clayton.
Jim Jordan was Ling’s honors English teacher at Del Campo. He said he has thought of his former student every day since her detention. On his Facebook page, he posted a photo of her as a reminder.
“We’re so proud of her for being strong,” he said. “She will take this and build from it and she’ll do more great things for the world because of this experience.”
Marcus Marquez, co-owner of the L Wine Lounge, helped organize several of the local vigils and also attended Del Campo. He said this experience has injected important perspective into his daily life.
“It really makes you think about the freedoms we have,” he said.
Damon Paveglio reveals having a childhood crush on Ling, who he described as motivated and ambitious, sweet and nice – all at once. Paveglio, 33, works as a consultant for the state personnel board, and has known Ling since kindergarten. He remembers he and several classmates once taking one of Ling’s shoes for a game of keep-away.
“Years later, I spoke with Laura and she mentioned that she had told her dad Doug about what happened and he wrote down our names on a piece of cardboard and put it above the fridge,” he said. “She told me our names stayed there for the next 10 years.”
Like many relatives and friends, Ling’s uncle, Jerry Wang, has written her regular e-mails of support, via the U.S. State Department. He was unsure when he would see her again. That moment might come soon.
“I just want to give her a big hug,” he said.