WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One of two U.S. journalists detained in North Korea and accused of illegally entering the country has told her sister they broke the law, prompting the United States on Thursday to urge Pyongyang to grant them amnesty.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee of the U.S. media group Current TV, were arrested in March near the China-North Korea border while reporting on the trafficking of women. They were convicted of “great crimes” in June and sentenced to 12 years hard labor.
Lisa Ling told Sacramento NBC affiliate KCRA that her sister Laura told her by telephone on Tuesday that she and colleague Lee had violated North Korean law and needed help from the U.S. government to secure amnesty.
She quoted Laura Ling as saying: “We broke the law, we are sorry, and we need help. We need our government’s help to try and get amnesty because that really is our only hope.”
Soon afterward, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly called on North Korea to release them on grounds of “amnesty,” implying for the first time that the U.S. government believes they committed an offense.
Previously, the State Department had called for their release on “humanitarian” grounds and had not acknowledged the possibility of any wrongdoing.
U.S. officials fear the reclusive communist state hopes to use the two women, who worked for a media group co-founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, as leverage as it resists international pressure to halt its nuclear arms program.
Relations between the United States and North Korea, which fought on opposite sides of the 1950-1953 Korean war, have been strained in recent years by North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear arms despite a 2005 agreement to abandon its atomic programs.
Aggravating tensions, the North on May 25 conducted its second nuclear test, triggering fresh U.N. Security Council sanctions designed to make it harder for Pyongyang to export arms, pursue nuclear work and proliferate weapons technology.
Aides to U.S. President Barack Obama are working to secure the women’s release, but the administration wants to keep the issue separate from the larger diplomatic standoff sparked by the May nuclear test and a recent series of missile launches.
Lisa Ling said the women had not gone yet to a labor camp. “We aren’t sure exactly where they are or specifically how they are. When we asked, Laura said the conditions are OK, we’re OK, don’t worry,” Ling said.
She said both women had medical problems that had been preventing their being sent to a labor camp. “My sister has a recurring ulcer. Euna has lost 15 pounds,” she said.
Ling added: “But they’re very afraid that at some point they may be sent to a labor camp if things aren’t done before.”
“It was the third time that I’ve heard her voice since March 17 when they were first detained. And it was a very different call from the two previous calls,” she said.
“She was very deliberate and clear in her message, which was, look, you just have to know that we did violate North Korean law. We broke the law, we are sorry, and we need help. We need our government’s help to try and get amnesty because that really is our only hope,” Ling said.
She was planning to lead a rally later on Thursday for the reporters at the California state capitol in Sacramento.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Writing by David Storey; Editing by Eric Walsh