By Michelle Woo Photographs by Elizabeth Kim
Euna Lee and Laura Ling were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea. Back home, their anguished families plead for their return.
She loves movies.
Michael Saldate recalled the first movie he saw with Euna Lee, a woman he met at church.
“It was Shall We Dance?” he said with a smile.
That was five years ago. Lee was a young film editor, a graduate of the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Saldate was an actor. They fell in love quickly and married. “I just knew she was the right one,” he says. “There was something about her. And in a weird way, she felt the same about me.”
Saldate spoke of his wife at a candlelight vigil in Santa Monica, Calif., an event held last month in her honor. It was one of Saldate’s first public appearances since Lee and her colleague Laura Ling were captured and imprisoned in North Korea on March 17. The two journalists were working on a story in the border region of China and North Korea, Lee as an editor, Ling as a reporter. On June 7, after two and a half months of solitary confinement, they were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for illegally stepping foot into the communist state and an unspecified “grave crime.” Their fate remains unclear as the U.S. government works strategically for their freedom.
Political pawns, bargaining chips, a propaganda victory. Such jargon rolls off the tongues of media-savvy experts as they attempt to explain how these women are in a situation much bigger than themselves, a situation that has little to do with the crime they may or may not have committed and everything to do with Washington’s ongoing standoff with Pyongyang. With tensions rising around North Korea’s recent missile tests and apparent succession process, the capture of these two Americans, experts say, couldn’t have come at a worse time.
While the next steps remain uncertain, a clearer portrait of Lee and Ling surfaces back home.
“My sister is strong, but there is nothing hostile about her,” a visibly worn Lisa Ling said to a crowd of several hundred at the Santa Monica vigil, referring to the unspecified “hostile acts” the pair was tried for.
Lisa is a former host on ABC’s The View and the older sister of Ling. In the initial months after the detainment, the families remained quiet due to the extreme sensitivity of the situation, but are now speaking out. On stage, Lisa fought back tears as she talked about her sister and their daily phone chats, going on to recount the call she’d been waiting so desperately for. Just days before the vigil, Lisa picked up the phone to hear Ling’s trembling voice. “She said, ‘Hi, Li, it’s me.’”
Laura Ling, 32, began her journalism career as associate producer at Channel One in 1999, after graduating from UCLA with a degree in communication studies, and then went on to produce a documentary series for MTV. She later joined Current TV, a media venture led by Al Gore, where she covered hard-hitting stories everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to Indonesia, Haiti and the Amazon rainforest.
Ling was passionate about her work. On her Current TV profile page, she wrote: “Is the media broken? I’m rarely inspired by what I see in the media. Television is supposed to be the most powerful medium—but TV news seems to be anything but powerful.” She declared she wanted to change that.
On June 26, instead of celebrating her fifth wedding anniversary with her husband Iain Clayton, Ling remained at an undisclosed location in Pyongyang.
Seung-eun “Euna” Lee, 36, was born and raised in South Korea and moved to the United States to attend college. She married Saldate and gave birth to a baby girl, Hana, who is now 4.
Lee worked as an editor on a variety of projects in the Bay Area, including the Emmy-nominated Asian American TV show Stir. In 2005, she joined Current TV. Early this year, she and Ling were to produce a story about North Korean refugees and human trafficking along the border of China. It was Lee’s first overseas assignment.
“She wanted to tell stories about the plight of the people, the people who were oppressed and without a voice,” Saldate said.
When asked if he feared the possible dangers of his wife traveling to that region, he responded, “That wasn’t even a thought.”
Saldate described the first time he was able to speak on the phone with his wife since her capture “We were both in tears,” he said. “It was the hardest thing.”
His voice broke.
“I told her that Hana and I loved her and missed her and needed her to be strong for us,” he said. “I could hear in her voice that she was so scared. Terrified.”
Recently, at a vigil in San Francisco, Saldate told a crowd of supporters that Lee was able to record a voice message for Hana. That message has given them both strength. “[Hana] said, ‘Daddy don’t cry. Mommy will be home very soon.’”