SEOUL, South Korea – For weeks after North Korean guards seized Laura Ling and Euna Lee near the border with China and spirited the American journalists to Pyongyang on criminal charges, their families waited quietly for news about them.
They watched with mounting fear as an international standoff with North Korea over its rogue nuclear program deepened, with little word about the women's imprisonment in one of the most isolated countries in the world.
Two months after their arrest, the families received letters relayed by the Swedish ambassador to the reclusive communist nation. Then out of the blue, a phone call last Tuesday — the first since the reporters vanished March 17 while on a trip near the Chinese-North Korean border.
"They were very scared; they're very, very scared," sister Lisa Ling, also a TV journalist who reported from North Korea in 2005, said Monday on NBC's "Today" show. "You know, imagine, 11 o'clock, phone rings and I hear this little voice on the other end of the line saying, `Hi, Li, it's me."'
Breaking their silence, Ling's sister, parents and husband appeared on the show alongside Lee's husband and 4-year-old daughter to plead with North Korea for leniency and urge Pyongyang and Washington not to let the women become pawns in an increasingly tense geopolitical game.
Ling and Lee — reporters for San Francisco-based Current TV, a media venture started by former Vice President Al Gore — stand trial Thursday in North Korea's highest court, accused of entering the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts." U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the allegations "baseless."
Their trial, on charges that could land them in one of North Korea's notoriously grim labor camps, comes at a sensitive time in the diplomatic scramble to rein in an increasingly belligerent Pyongyang.
In the past two months, North Korea has launched a long-range rocket and conducted an underground nuclear test in defiance of the U.N. Security Council. The North also abandoned international disarmament negotiations and may have restarted its plutonium reprocessing plant. On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the regime appeared to be preparing a long-range missile.
Analysts say North Korea could use the women as bargaining chips in any negotiations with Washington and its allies.
"Having two journalists detained in the North leaves the U.S. very little maneuvering room since Washington now has to take the women's safety into account," said Yoon Deok-min, a professor at South Korea's state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters North Korea should not use the reporters as a pawn in nuclear talks.
"The whole nuclear issue a separate one," Wood said.
The U.S. and North Korea, which fought on opposite sides of the bitter three-year Korean War in the early 1950s, do not have diplomatic relations. Washington also has 28,500 troops in South Korea to help monitor the cease-fire laid out in a truce signed in 1953.
North Korea, which has few allies and has seen South Korean aid dry up since President Lee Myung-bak took office last year, is desperate to normalize ties with the U.S., analysts said.
Analyst Paik Hak-soon called North Korea's nuclear test a ploy to put "maximum pressure" on President Barack Obama to cave into Pyongyang's desire for direct talks. He said Thursday's trial could provide a diplomatic opening for such talks.
The circumstances of their arrest remain unclear. Their families insist the women were on a reporting trip to China and had no intention of crossing illegally into North Korea, divided from China by the shallow Tumen River.
Ling wrote to her family that she "cried so much" the first few days after her arrest.
"Now, I cry less. I try very hard to think about positive things, but sometimes it is hard," the 32-year-old Californian wrote. She described a routine of stretches and meditation, and rare days outside for fresh air.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists urged North Korea to hear their pleas and to recognize the women "were only doing their jobs as reporters, and had no intention of violating North Korea's laws."
"We hope North Korea and the United States and all the other parties to the conflict on the Korean Peninsula can clear their way through more than five decades of animosity to come together to see that these two journalists are reunited with their families," Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said in a statement Monday.
The families are set to appear later Monday on CNN's "Larry King Live" and on ABC's "Nightline," and have posted letters to Facebook and supported the candlelight vigils set to take place in cities across the U.S. as the women go to trial in Pyongyang.
Lisa Ling said the families are "terrified" for the women. She said her younger sister suffers from an ulcer that requires medical treatment. Lee's husband, Michael Saldate, admitted that their daughter Hannah "still thinks Mommy's at work."
"The situation is so sensitive, and we all sit and we watch the news breathlessly and we see that the tension on the Korean peninsula is just escalating continuously," Lisa Ling said, "and we just felt like now is the time to try and urge both governments to communicate."
"We as the family just felt like we need to try and encourage our countries to talk and resolve this issue separate from the greater nuclear issue," she said.