Call for journalists’ release as trial date nears in North Korea

New York, June 3, 2009–On the eve of the June 4 criminal trial date for U.S. television journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling in North Korea, the Committee to Protect Journalists calls for all countries involved in the Six Party Talks to work together to ensure their freedom. The countries in the talks are North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States.

The two journalists were on assignment for San Francisco-based Current TV when they were picked up on March 17. They were later charged with illegally entering the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea and committing “hostile acts.”

“We want to reiterate to North Korean that the detention of these women is a humanitarian issue and we call upon the government to release them,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “We urge that their fate not be linked to the ongoing security situation on the Korean Peninsula. Euna Lee and Laura Ling were acting as journalists, not criminals, and should be released.”

According to the women’s families and the Swedish Mission at the United Nations, Lee and Ling are being kept separately in what seems to be a government guest house or possibly a hotel outside of Pyongyang. Swedish Ambassador to North Korea Mats Foyer has acted as a liaison. They have been able to make a limited number of phone calls home and have been able to write letters to their families. Even though their communications are monitored, some analysts interpret this as a sign that the North Koreans might not be too harsh in their sentencing.  The women say they are not being physically abused but that they are isolated from each other. They say they are aware that they are caught in a power struggle that has been going on for more than five decades on the Korean Peninsula.

Lee and Ling were taken by border police at a bridge crossing over the Tumen River, which forms part of the border between North Korea and China. Mitchell Koss, executive producer of Current TV’s Vanguard Journalism reporting unit, and a driver were working with them but were not taken. They were covering the story of North Koreans living in the border area in China. The border is porous, with a fair amount of trade and traffic and a large North Korean population living in exile or traveling back and forth looking for economic opportunities. 

No one from Current TV has made any public statements about the incident, and the driver has not come forward either. The U.S. State Department has issued few comments about the situation.

On Monday, family members, led by Laura’s sister Lisa Ling, made televised appearances calling for direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea to gain the women’s release, arguing that the humanitarian nature of the situation overrides the diplomatic constraints limiting contact between the two countries without the framework of the Six Party Talks.

Supporters have launched a Facebook-based grass roots movement–“Detained In North Korea : Journalist Laura Ling and Euna Lee, please help.” Frequent vigils have been held across the United States, with heightened activity in the days before the trial.

Ling had twittered the group’s progress as they made their way from the U.S. to the border area in Northern China. Her last message, on March 17, was “Missing home.”