Nightmare is over for women who strayed into hostile territory

Archie Bland
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:06

Suddenly things are looking up for Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Until yesterday, the two American journalists were facing a grim future that they could hardly have expected when they left their homes in California for a reporting trip to the border between China and North Korea.

When they set out, they were working on a story about human trafficking of North Korean women into China. In the course of their reporting, it seems they strayed the other way, and set foot in North Korean territory. Whether that was a mistake, a deliberate act or a falsehood put out by North Korea was unclear, but the consequences were not.

After a summary trial, the women were sentenced to 12 years hard labour in a brutal work camp for offences variously reported as spying, illegal entry, and the catch-all "hostile activities".

For Laura Ling, such an eventuality may have always seemed possible. When she spoke to The Independent's Los Angeles correspondent, Guy Adams, shortly before her departure for China, she remarked on how it seemed that fate had conspired to send her to two of the world's most dangerous international borders in quick succession – she was just home from a reporting trip on the drugs trade across Mexico's border with the US.

At the age of 32, she had already built up a great deal of experience as a reporter for Al Gore's CurrentTV, and had risen to the rank of Vice-President of the organisation's Vanguard Journalism Unit after reporting from countries including Burma, Vietnam, and China. Relatives and colleagues universally describe her as a driven, ambitious, and fearless reporter.

"We're trying to push the envelope here, and stay out in front of events, rather than regurgitate headlines," she said in a CurrentTV promotional video. In captivity, though, that spirit came under constant attack. "While I am trying to remain hopeful," she wrote to her husband, Iain Clayton, "each day becomes harder and harder to bear. I am so lonely and scared."

If Ling had some understanding of the risks that her work entailed, her colleague Euna Lee had much less experience on which she could draw.

A native of South Korea who had moved to the US in the mid-1990s to attend college, her work was primarily behind the camera, as a producer and video editor. The trip to the North Korean border with China was her first overseas assignment as a journalist and nothing she had previously worked on had entailed similar risks: in the past, she had mostly worked in an edit suite at home in Los Angeles.

She has a four-year-old daughter with her actor husband, Michael Saldate. "I haven't really said much," Mr Saldate said of his discussions with the little girl about her mother's imprisonment. "I've just kept it that she's still at work and, you know, hoping that she'll be home soon and that mommy's assignment is done."

Last night, the two women were said to be heading home on Bill Clinton's private jet, and their respective families were ecstatic. But no one can imagine the effect that the five months since their capture – and particularly the two months since their sentencing, when all hope seemed to be extinguished – will have had on them.

Little is known of their time in captivity, except that they immediately confessed to the crimes of which they were accused and were quite prepared to admit culpability in exchange for their freedom. How far they were aware of the negotiations taking part on their behalf is not clear.

But to their families last night, none of that mattered. "We are overjoyed by the news of their pardon," a statement read. "We are counting the seconds to hold Laura and Euna in our arms."

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