SACRAMENTO, California – Friends and family of two California journalists were relieved and excited Tuesday after the pair was pardoned by North Korea and expected to be released to former President Bill Clinton.
But they weren’t ready to start the celebration until Laura Ling and Euna Lee returned home.
“I’m just completely excited for the family and looking forward to seeing them flying home with Bill Clinton,” said Marcus Marquez, who went to high school with Ling in Carmichael, a Sacramento suburb.
He added their families were not going to be fully relieved until “they’re in their arms.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il ordered the journalists released during a visit by Clinton, who arrived in North Korea earlier in the day on an unannounced visit.
Friends and family members had been keeping their hopes up after North Korea accused Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, of sneaking into the country illegally in March and engaging in “hostile acts.” The nation’s top court sentenced them in June to 12 years of hard labour.
The families of the two women issued a joint statement thanking President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. State Department for their work.
“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,” according to the statement posted on a Web site dedicated to freeing the two journalists.
Brandon Yip, who is married to Ling’s cousin, said the first thing he’ll tell Ling when she returns is, “Don’t ever do that again.”
Yip, who is the worship pastor at Bayside Covenant Church of West Roseville, north Sacramento, said he prayed throughout the ordeal and felt confident the women would return home. He said he was grateful someone of Clinton’s stature was able to negotiate their release.
“I think it needed to be somebody like that,” Yip told The Associated Press at his office. “I’m grateful that they finally got to that point where they could at least come together and talk.”
He said he did not know when the women would be return to the United States.
Marquez said the families were heartened by vigils held on the journalists’ behalf from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. He said a celebration will be held in Sacramento after they return home.
A neighbour of Laura Ling’s father in Carmichael said she was ecstatic when she heard the news on the radio.
“It’s been a long wait for the family. It’s good news today,” said Tomi Kelley, 48, who lives a few houses away.
Curtains were drawn at Ling’s father’s house and there was no answer at the door. Several television trucks were parked on the street.
The news drew applause from California officials, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Schwarzenegger said he and his wife, Maria Shriver, were joining all Californians in celebrating the release of Ling and Lee. He wished them a safe return home.
“This has been an extremely difficult time for all involved, and I am grateful that this humanitarian gesture will allow them to begin a new chapter of their lives,” Feinstein said in a statement.
Vigils have been held around the nation since the March detention, including at the state capitol in Sacramento. Last month, Ling’s husband, Ian Clayton, told a crowd of about 300 supporters gathered on the west steps of the Capitol that he wrote to his wife every day.
“People often ask me, ‘How am I coping? How am I doing?”‘ Clayton said. “I think there’s been better days.”
The families sent letters pleading for the release of the women who were working for San Francisco-based Current TV when North Korean guards seized them March 17 near the country’s border with China.
The journalists’ detention came at a time of heightened tension between the U.S. and North Korea over that country’s nuclear program. The U.N. Security Council also has imposed sanctions against North Korea for a May nuclear test.
Associated Press Writer Don Thompson contributed to this report.