By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
June 22, 2009 12:00 PM

Laura Ling knew it was risky—reporting a story for Current TV along the North Korean-Chinese border—but as the journalist waited at the Seoul airport for her flight into the hostile region on March 14, she expected to be home in Los Angeles within the week and breezily joked on Twitter about indulging in a Korean dish of pickled cabbage: “Hoping my kimchee breath will ward off all danger.” Three months later, Ling, 32, and fellow reporter Euna Lee, 36, who left a 4-year-old daughter at home in California for her first assignment outside the editing room, are desperately hoping that the U.S. government can save them from the unthinkable: a sentence of 12 years hard labor in a North Korean prison camp as punishment for their alleged “grave crime” of illegally crossing into North Korea. “It is hell,” one North Korean woman tells PEOPLE, through an intermediary, of surviving labor camps, where she says food and water are scarce, beatings are common and women spend 18 hours a day cutting lumber by hand. “The North Korean government doesn’t care whether you live or die.”

Luckily for Ling and Lee, powerful people in the United States do care and are, in the words of one State Department official, “actively engaged” in winning the women’s freedom. The chairman of Current TV is no less than former Vice President Al Gore, who has been in close contact with the White House and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton since the women’s March 17 arrest. A Gore spokeswoman said he isn’t commenting at this time. And Ling’s older sister is media-savvy Lisa Ling, National Geographic contributor and former cohost of The View, who took to the airwaves with other family members in the days leading up to the women’s June 4 trial with an emotional plea. “She’s still my little sister,” Lisa Ling, 35, told PEOPLE. “To feel this helpless has been the most debilitating experience of my life.”

Before she and Lee became pawns in what one U.S. official described as a “high-stakes poker game” with North Korea over its gambit to become a nuclear power, Laura was the worrier in the Ling family—a tendency that may have led to an ulcer (her family is worried about her medical treatment in captivity) and one that resonates in what little communication they’ve had from her. “Stay strong, and please take care of yourself,” Ling wrote in a letter conveyed to her mother through the Swedish ambassador to North Korea, who was allowed to visit Ling and Lee at the Pyongyang guesthouses where they were held in isolation before their five-day trial. “This is my biggest request.”

Lee’s family, meanwhile, is watching, distraught, as daughter Hana tries to make sense of Mommy’s being gone three long months. Lee’s husband, Michael Saldate, said on CNN that Hana spotted her mother’s picture on TV and later burst into tears. “She [says], ‘I want to see my mommy.’ And there was nothing I could do or say to help.”

The families’ feelings of helplessness are compounded by the diplomatic high-wire act of dealing with North Korea, a mystifying and often irrational government with which the United States has no official relationship. On one level U.S. officials privately expressed optimism that the women’s release could be negotiated—perhaps by a special envoy like Gore or former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson, who has successfully brought detainees home from North Korea in the past. But the women’s declared fate, for the moment, appears grim. David Hawk, an author and expert on North Korea’s camps, says the slave labor, starvation and beatings kill many prisoners, though as Americans, Ling and Lee may receive slightly better treatment. “Unlike the North Korean prisoners, they will likely receive adequate food and medical attention,” says Hawk. “But these two women are still in for a very difficult situation.”