The families of two American journalists held captive in North Korea expressed fears for their safety today while pleading for their release.
“We’re terrified,” Lisa Ling, the sister of one of the journalists, said in an exclusive interview on TODAY. “We don’t know what to expect.”
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for Current TV, were detained by North Korean guards March 17 while shooting video along the country’s border with China. They have been imprisoned since then.
Ling and Lee are set to stand trial Thursday in Pyongyang’s top Central Court. They are charged with engaging in “hostile acts” and entering the country illegally, and could face up to 15 years of hard labor if convicted.
Human bargaining chips
The court appearance comes at a time when tensions between North Korea and the United States are increasing as North Korea tests missiles and nuclear weapons. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who negotiated the release of two Americans held by North Korea in the 1990s, said the imprisonment is serious.
“They want to use these two detainees as bargaining chips,” Richardson told TODAY. “It’s a high-stakes poker game.”
The families have not spoken publicly about the situation until today, hoping that diplomacy would lead to the release of the journalists before a trial. But with the Thursday court date rapidly approaching, they decided to speak out.
Lisa Ling, a correspondent for National Geographic Channel’s “Explorer,” joined her parents, her sister Laura’s husband, and Lee’s husband and 4-year-old daughter in Studio 1A for a group interview with Matt Lauer.
“Now is the time to try and urge both governments to communicate,” Ling said. She noted that her sister and Lee have been visited by a Swedish diplomat, and that her sister was allowed to make a phone call last week.
KCNA, the North Korean state-run news agency, has said the reporters’ treatment was governed by international laws. The family members all agreed that if Ling and Lee had inadvertently trespassed onto North Korean soil while filming their report, they would admit their mistake. “If they did at any point commit any transgression and cross into North Korean territory, we apologize,” said Lisa Ling.
The Swedish diplomat gave the families letters written by the imprisoned journalists. In one of them, Laura Ling writes: “Every day I shed so many tears thinking about this.”
The Obama administration has sought to quietly negotiate the release of the journalists. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the charges “baseless,” and has supported Internet campaigns to free the women.
Kim Dong-han, a research professor at Dongguk University in Seoul and an expert in North Korean law, told the Los Angeles Times he did not expect the trial to end with a long prison sentence.
“Extreme punishments are only applied to five crimes in North Korea, such as treason and some high-profile murders,” he said. He expects they will receive maximum two-year jail terms if they are convicted of the lesser charge of illegal entry.
But Lisa Ling noted that there are humanitarian reasons to seek the release of the journalists: Her sister Laura suffers from a stomach ulcer, and Lee is the mother of a young daughter.