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Friends speak up for L.A. journalists held by N. Korea

Laura Ling and Euna Lee are passionate about their work, friends and colleagues say. The women, seized in March, were sentenced Monday to 12 years of hard labor.

June 11, 2009|Raja Abdulrahim and Jessica Garrison

Derrick Shore was nervous when he traveled with Laura Ling to the shantytowns of Sao Paulo, Brazil, several years ago.

Both worked for Channel One, a news network for young adults, and were reporting on the dangerous slums for a series on urbanization. Shore said he was the panicked reporter and Ling the calm producer -- though he is considerably bigger and perhaps better able to defend himself.

"We had a driver who thought we were crazy that we were even thinking of going into" the area, Shore recalled. "And here she is, this little girl, this fearless producer . . . and she had this way of making me feel calm."

Shore and others who have worked with Ling during her years at Channel One and later at Current TV describe a bold and hardworking journalist who is both personable and empathetic. They say those traits served her in her work, including the human trafficking story she was reporting on when she and colleague Euna Lee were arrested in March along the Chinese-North Korean border by North Korean forces.

Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, who work for San Francisco-based Current TV, were convicted by the communist nation's Central Court of an undefined "grave crime" against the regime and sentenced Monday to 12 years of hard labor.

Both women work in Current's Vanguard journalism department -- Ling as a vice president and correspondent and Lee as a film editor -- and are based in Los Angeles. Current, founded by former Vice President Al Gore and others, is a television network carried on cable and satellite that strives to serve as a platform for citizen journalism while also producing documentaries on topics not covered elsewhere.

Ling and Lee's fate has become caught up in the complex standoff between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons ambitions.

Some experts have suggested that the North Koreans might try to link any sentence reduction to whatever punishment might be imposed by the United Nations or individual countries for recent nuclear detonation and missile tests.

U.S. officials have said they would not mingle the two issues but are deeply concerned about what is happening to the women in North Korea's notorious prison system.

Although supporters have urged prayers and created online petitions calling for the journalists' release, others have criticized Lee and Ling's actions as naive or potentially harmful to the United States.

It is not clear whether they ever actually entered North Korean territory before being arrested. The families have emphasized that when Ling and Lee left the United States, they had no intention of entering North Korea.

"We don't know what really happened on March 17, but if they wandered across the border without permission, we apologize on their behalf and we are certain that they have also apologized," the families said in a statement released after the women's sentencing.

Pat Laskey, who was Ling's algebra teacher at Del Campo High School in Fair Oaks, Calif., and has kept in touch with her, remembers once discussing the dangerous nature of Ling's work.

"She's done some pretty hairy stuff," Laskey said, recalling a report Ling did on underground churches in China.

"We talked about how they put their lives in jeopardy," she said. "They understand that. Hopefully, it's not going to cost her big time."

Ling, who grew up in the Sacramento area, has long had an interest in world issues and got her reporting start at Channel One.

Ling followed in the footsteps of her older sister, Lisa, a television correspondent who three years ago sneaked into the communist nation while shooting a documentary.

In recent weeks, Lisa Ling has campaigned for her sister's release, holding vigils and appearing on television shows to describe Laura's dedication to using journalism to make the world a better place.

Laura Ling began working as an associate producer at Channel One in 1999, a year after graduating from UCLA with a bachelor's in communication studies.

She eventually became a producer and traveled to the West Bank, Indonesia, Cuba and the Philippines while also covering issues such as Los Angeles gangs and homeless teens.

"For as long as I've known her, [she] has always had a global conscience and was interested in stories that were happening around the world," said Morgan Wandell, a friend and former president of programming at Channel One.

Dan Beckmann, who worked in the Vanguard department under Ling for two years, called her "the center of that department," adding that Ling was invested in her employees. "I've never had a boss who was ever that worried that everyone working for her was happy."

Lee, the mother of a 4-year-old, is an uncommonly kind and caring person, current and former colleagues said.

"She's one of those people who's the unsung hero, makes sure the work gets done -- she was working to help out the team when she went to China because she was the only person on the team who spoke Korean," Beckmann said.

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