June 8, 2009 -- 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.
Lisa Ling -- Fighting for Her Sister
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.
"Given everything that's happening in the news -- I mean we're talking about what seems to be a full-blown nuclear standoff, and my little sister and Euna Lee are seemingly in the midst of it, and we just felt like it was really time to try and urge our two countries to communicate on our issue and to separate it," Lisa said. "Our issue is a humanitarian issue, and we hope that our two countries that don't have a diplomatic relationship can come together to resolve this and try and get the girls released."
"My sister is my best friend on earth," said Lisa Ling, who reports for several news organizations and is a former co-host of ABC's "The View."
"We both travel all over the world and I don't think that there has been a single day that we haven't spoken. I mean, I can be in the middle of the Himalayas and she can be in the Ukraine, and we'll somehow manage to get a phone call out.
"And so to not have been able to talk to her in months has been so hard."
Lisa Ling said she's been keeping a vigil with her parents, and Laura Ling's husband of five years, Iain Clayton.
Since the arrest, Lisa Ling has spent almost every weekend with Lee's husband, Michael Saldate, and the couple's 4-year-old daughter.
"Euna has this beautiful 4-year-old daughter, Hana," Ling said. "And when she walked into the door of our home our hearts just broke because her husband Michael has all of a sudden kind of become a single parent instantly."
Lisa Ling said Lee's prolonged absence is beginning to affect Hana. "She drew a picture the other day that just had her dad and her in it. Her mom wasn't in the picture, and he said that that's the first time that that's ever happened."
"The details of the day they were arrested are very vague," said Lisa. "They were working on a story about the trafficking of women along the China-North Korea border. ... They were expected to be home two days later, so whatever happened that day, it was not their intention to cross the border.
"We don't know if they actually did, but if at any point they crossed into North Korean territory then we profusely apologize on their behalf, because we know that they never intended to do that when they left the United States."
Lisa Ling: Letters Help Sisters Stay in Touch
Lisa said her sister seems to be getting at least some of the letters she and her family have been sending, which are delivered via the Swedish ambassador to North Korea.
The family has received only one letter from Laura in return, and Lisa wept as she read it.
"When I first got here I cried so much," the letter said. "Now I cry less. I try very hard not to think about the possible negative outcomes, but sometimes it's hard not to. Some days I get to go outside for a few minutes and get some fresh air, which is quite a treat. I breathe deeply and I think about the positive things that happened in the day, like I'm lucky I've gotten through another day."
Lisa said that in that letter, her sister "was very specific about saying that she hopes that our countries can somehow find a way to talk to each other, that they really felt like this is their only chance to get released."
Lisa Ling: Family Moved by Internet Support
Lisa said she and her family have been moved by the outpouring of support they've received online.
"This whole grassroots movement has been born to try and secure the release of the girls and thousands of people have become part of it," said Ling.
"And it's been the most moving, incredible sort of phenomenon to have all of these people sending well wishes and support. And you know the weird thing about something like Facebook and Twitter is I've been at home, like, late at night, and just feeling emotional and I'll post something so intensely personal on Facebook.
Lisa Ling: 'I Miss You, Laura'
"I'll just type, 'I miss you, Laura.' But after I hit update or share I think to myself, like, why did I just post that for thousands of people who I don't know to see?
"For some reason when people who I don't even know send me a message that says, 'We support you and we're praying for you,' or 'We're behind you,' somehow there's like the strangest comfort in that."
Staying hopeful, Lisa said, is what her family is focused on now.
"They've been given three meals a day," said Lisa, and her sister told her she is being treated fairly. "So for that we are deeply, deeply grateful, and if the North does show mercy and release them then we will absolutely thank them profusely."
Lisa said she keeps a positive outlook by envisioning the moment she and her sister are reunited.
"I do believe in the fundamental good in people," she said. "And these are good girls. These are not spies. I mean it's my baby sister, you know?
"I have to believe that the good in people will -- and the truth -- will set them free. I have to believe that."