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Journalist reflects on 2009 homecoming after North Korean captivity

Laura Ling was held captive for 140 days in North Korea while on a reporting trip in 2009.
/ Source: TODAY

Three Americans freed from North Korea after spending up to two years in captivity now face a period of adjustment as they return to a life of freedom, a time that will likely be filled with a heightened sense of appreciation and awareness, says a fellow American who once walked in their shoes.

Laura Ling, one of two American journalists detained for 140 days in North Korea in 2009, said she was “overjoyed” to hear that three fellow Americans had returned home early Thursday. She said she couldn’t help but think about her own experience of isolation, fear and destitution while held captive — and how those experiences influenced her initial days back home.

“There was really an appreciation that I had for the smallest things, things that we really take for granted,” Ling said in an interview with NBC News. “Music, to hear music on the radio brought me to tears.”

Ling said she also became emotional whenever the national anthem played at sporting events. Her gratitude deepened tremendously for even the smallest freedoms that “we tend to take for granted too often," she said.

Laura Ling, speaking after she and fellow journalist Euna Lee were freed from North Korea in 2009. Former President Bill Clinton played a role in winning their freedom.Getty Images

“Just being able to take a walk, a stroll in my neighborhood, to look at the stars at night,” she said. “These were things that, luxuries that I didn't have when I was held in North Korea. And so they became little treasures for me.”

Ling was held captive in 2009 for 140 days with fellow journalist Euna Lee. The pair were working at the time for the now-defunct Current TV on a story about North Korean defectors.

Hours before dawn on Thursday, American citizens Kim Hak-song, Kim Dong-chul and Kim Sang-duk, who were held captive for up to two years in North Korea, landed in a U.S. government plane at Joint Base Andrews located just outside Washington, D.C.

“I was so overjoyed when I heard that these three Americans were headed home,” Ling said. “I thought back to my time in North Korea and that plane ride home when I was finally about to see my family and embrace them for the first time.”

Lee and Ling embrace their family members for the first time after their release from North Korean captivity in 2009. Getty Images

She said the three former detainees must be thrilled, but “perhaps a little bit in disbelief,” too.

“Just a few months ago, North Korea and the United States were threatening annihilation of one another, and I'm sure that they were incredibly fearful that their fate was tied up in that relationship,” Ling said. “And for them now to be coming home is such, is so amazing. I'm just so thrilled for them.”

Ling noted that the release of the American trio is the latest of goodwill gestures by North Korea. Last month, its leader, Kim Jung Un, said his country would suspend nuclear and missile tests. Days later, he met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at a historic summit.

“But what has been missing from the conversation has been human rights, and I hope that that does not get lost,” she added. “I hope that Kim Jong Un can be convinced that the true path to a lasting peace is to release the tens of thousands of political prisoners that are being held in North Korea and to provide and give its people the freedom that they so rightly deserve."