For two families praying for the release of U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the news that they were sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labor camp comes as a bombshell as the U.S. government works feverishly for their freedom.
The two women, who were arrested in March while reporting for Al Gore's Current TV along the Chinese-North Korean border, were found guilty today of "hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry."
"She's really scared," "Nightline" contributor Lisa Ling said of her sister in a recent ABC News interview. "I mean, she's terrified. My sister is a wife, with a medical condition. And Euna Lee is the mother of a 4-year-old girl, who has been without her mother for almost three months."
The two journalists were working on a story about the trafficking of women along the North Korean border. Lisa Ling said they never intended to cross into North Korea and has apologized if they, indeed, left China unintentionally.
Friends have told ABC News that they hoped any sentence for Ling and Lee would be symbolic, and that the women would be allowed to return to the United States.
Either way, the sentencing comes amid a high-stakes international standoff over nuclear development. The United States has said it might start stopping North Korean ships and planes suspected of carrying weapons or nuclear technology.
"If we do not take significant and effective action against the North Koreans now, we'll spark an arms race in Northeast Asia," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Sunday in an interview on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." "I don't think anybody wants to see that."
ABC News' Stephanopoulos said today on "Good Morning America" that the U.S government is working hard to secure the women's release. Clinton, he said, has even gone so far as to send a letter to the North Korean government apologizing for their actions and asking for them to be sent home.
And, he said, Gore has also been active behind the scenes. But North Korea may use the women's imprisonment as a bargaining chip for leniency on other issues, some observers say.
The families of the two detained journalists had remained silent, on the advice of the State Department, but as the trial date approached, Lisa Ling said she received a phone call that changed her mind about going public with her sister's story.
"At 11 at night my phone rang, and not having heard her voice for almost three months now, I picked up the phone and she said, 'Hi, Li. It's me.' And I mean I was just astounded.
"And she said, 'I'm still here. I need your help,'" Ling recalled. "And that phone call lasted about four minutes, during which she essentially said look, the only thing that could help us is if our two countries communicate.
Lisa Ling said her sister told her that she and Lee were being treated fairly, but that "the only thing that is going to help us is if our two countries can talk."
So Lisa Ling is trying to relay her sister's message publicly, urging direct communication between the United States and North Korea even as tensions between the two countries are ratcheting up, with North Korea's recent missile and underground nuclear tests.