By DARRELL MIHO
SANTA MONICA.—There was thunder and lighting just hours before a candlelight vigil was set to begin June 3 to raise awareness for two Asian American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who have been detained in North Korea since March 17. Organizers were worried that Mother Nature might put a damper on what was one of eight vigils planned across the country.
The rain didn’t come, but the people did.
More than 500 supporters packed themselves in like sardines at Wokcano’s outdoor plaza in downtown Santa Monica and overflowed up to the second floor balcony. Emcee Welly Yang had to ask twice for everyone to squeeze in to let in more people that were waiting outside.
Members of the Korean Veterans Association were on hand, some in full uniform. Other supporters bore signs that read, “Bring them home” and “We miss you.”
Just hours after the vigil had started, the Asian American journalists were scheduled to go on trial on charges of illegally crossing the border and unspecified “hostile acts.” The pair had traveled to China to do a story on refugees when they were detained by North Korean guards at the China and North Korea border.
Lisa Ling, Laura’s sister and a well-respected journalist herself, fought back tears as she spoke personally about her sister and Euna. “My sister is strong, but there is nothing hostile about her. Euna is the mother of the most angelic 4-year-old daughter, hardly a threatening character.”
Actresss Kelly Hu read a message from Roxana Saberi, the journalist who was convicted on charges of spying in Iran, but was released last month after being imprisoned for four months. Saberi wrote, “Laura and Euna, I pray that you remain strong and know that neither your families nor you are alone. I hope that a way will be found to return both of you to your families as soon as possible.”
CNN’s Anderson Cooper conducted a live interview with Lisa Ling, Iain Clayton, Laura’s husband and Michael Saldate, Euna’s husband, via satellite. During the interview, supporters held their candles and placards high for the cameras to see in order to send a powerful message of love and support. Their hope was that the broadcast would be seen, not only by the American people, but also the North Koreans.
Grace Su of Santa Monica came to the vigil “to really support the families and really be here to show the collective support so that the media can see it, so that the U.S. government would see it, that the North Korean government would see it and hopefully the verdict will be something positive and the girls will return home safely.”
From the beginning, the family had remained quiet due to the sensitive nature of the events and hoped the government could use diplomacy to bring the reporters home. But last week, Lisa got an unexpected phone call from Laura. Lisa said Laura’s voice was trembling as they spoke for roughly four minutes. “Li, it’s me,” Laura said, “I need your help.”
With tensions rising from North Korea’s renewed nuclear and missile testing, the families decided they needed to speak out. During that phone call, Laura said that the only hope that she and Euna had to be released was for both governments to talk to each other. Currently, North Korea and the United States do not have a diplomatic relationship and the only way they communicate is through a third neutral country.
As of Friday, there was no word on the court proceedings that were to begin on Thursday.
The news blackout could mean the journalists were being used as bargaining chips. The North might be dragging out their trial as the communist leadership waits to see what kind of sanctions Washington and the U.N. will use to punish the nation for its latest nuclear blast and barrage of missile tests last week.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korean expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, said Pyongyang will likely free the reporters and treat their release as a goodwill gesture that should be reciprocated with a special U.S. envoy visiting the isolated state.
“It shows how the North makes political judgments, which have nothing to do with laws,” Koh said.
By speaking out, the families hope that the two governments would keep this separate from the larger geo-political issues. In a statement released to the press the family appealed to both governments, “We hope that our two countries can come together to secure the expeditious release of Laura and Euna on humanitarian grounds.”
Vigils were already being planned to call for the release of Lee and Ling when the families decided to go public. Birmingham, Chicago, New York City, Portland, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. were all joining together to raise awareness to the journalist’s plight. With candles still burning, the gathering marched through the streets of Santa Monica to Third Street Promenade. There was no chanting, there were no bullhorns, but they caught the attention of people on the street with the rhythmic beating drums of Bombu Taiko leading the way. And the group of followers grew.
Their final destination was a dinosaur fountain near Wilshire Blvd. The thunderous sounds of Yukari Taiko filled the night air with heart pounding beats that drowned out the sound of the fountain.
Lisa Ling was touched by the overwhelming outpouring of support from friends and strangers alike. “Our families have been just so surprised but moved by how many people came out to support Laura and Euna. This is a total grassroots effort that was ignited by Facebook.”
—Associated Press contributed to this report.