Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Sacramentans show support for journalists jailed in North Korea

Two American journalists imprisoned in North Korea likely have no inkling that people in eight cities – including Sacramento, Birmingham, Ala., New York and Washington, D.C. – rallied behind them Wednesday night and called for their release. But it gave their supporters a way to stand together.

"We are helpless," said Pat Laskey, a retired math teacher from Del Campo High School who taught one of the journalists, Laura Ling, at the Fair Oaks campus. "We don't have political clout, but we can use our thoughts, prayers and love. Everybody can make a difference this way."

Ling and Euna Lee are being held on suspicion of illegally entering North Korea and performing what the tightly controlled country has called "hostile acts."

Their trial was scheduled to begin today in North Korea, which is 16 hours ahead of Sacramento time. But as with most matters inside the isolated nation, little is known about how the trial will be conducted, how long it will take, or the reclusive government's procedures.

And with mounting nuclear tensions between the communist country and the rest of the world, the families of the journalists broke a long silence on the pair's March 17 detention. They went on national television this week to plead with the North Korean government to release the journalists on humanitarian grounds.

"If Laura and Euna had been taken at a quieter time, a path out of this might be more clear," said Bob Dietz, Asia program director for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "I don't know what's going to happen in this trial, but I don't expect a good solution."

The journalists, correspondents for San Francisco-based Current TV, were arrested while reporting on the trafficking of women along the Tumen River, a stretch of porous border between North Korea and China. The journalists did not intend to enter North Korea while reporting the story, their families have said.

The families received a round of letters from Lee and Ling through Swedish diplomats who have been able to visit them three times since their arrest. Last week, the families received phone calls.

"My husband and I were sitting at home at 11 at night. I got a call. And I picked up the phone and I heard this little voice say, "Li, it's me. I need your help,'" Ling's sister, journalist Lisa Ling, said Monday on CNN's "Larry King Live." "It was extremely emotional. I'm surprised we were even able to get our words out. But in the course of that four-minute conversation, she said that the only way she may be able to get released is if our two countries communicate."

The United States and North Korea have not had direct communication in the 56 years since the Korean War cease-fire. And North Korea's most-recent nuclear actions have complicated efforts to release the journalists.

The families decided to appeal directly to North Korea this week with appearances on national and international television believed to be monitored by North Korean officials, Dietz said. The families stressed that Ling was suffering from an ulcer and showcased Lee's 4-year-old daughter who simply thinks her mother is still at work.

"What the family wanted to do was not so much get public support, although they're grateful for that, but what they wanted was to send a message to the North Korean government unfiltered," Dietz said. "They clearly apologized if any mistake has been made, and gave the strongest humanitarian appeal they could."

Supporters in Sacramento held signs proclaiming, "Set them free," and "Release our journalists," as they marched Wednesday from the L Wine Lounge and Urban Kitchen, near 18th and L streets, to the west steps of the Capitol. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and three state legislators – Assembly members Fiona Ma and Paul Fong and Sen. Bob Huff – led a group of about 80.

The most difficult part of the past three months has been the unknowns, said Ling's uncle, Jerry Wang, who was at the gathering. "It's the uncertainty of not knowing how she's doing and how it's going to turn out, especially with these international tensions," said Wang, a Kaiser physician.

The group bowed their heads and counted 60 seconds of silence before collectively sending positive thoughts to the journalists.

The march was a makeshift Del Campo High School reunion, organized by alumni Beth Diebels and Marcus Marquez. It became one of the coordinated vigils around the country with the help of Facebook, where people are going for updates, Diebels said.

"Laura's one of our own," said Ling's former English teacher Jim Jordan. "You've got to support your people, and we want to protect the rights we have here and share with the people of the world the free press we believe in."

Marquez, who served on the Del Campo journalism staff with Lisa Ling, conceded their efforts are not likely to make a difference to North Korean officials, but he does hope they offer a message of hope to the journalists' families.

"You can't help but get a lump in your throat at how all of these people are doing this out of nothing but love," Diebels said. "We hope this will encourage a diplomatic end to this story."