Monitoring the Lee, Ling case in North Korea

I’ve been staying up nights waiting for news on journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who are detained and facing trial in North Korea. The government in Pyongyang, through its official Korean Central News Agency, posted this terse item on Thursday: “The Central Court of the DPRK will start a trial of American journalists Laura Ling and Seung-eun Lee from 3 p.m. Thursday on the basis of the indictment already brought against them.” (Seung-eun is Euna’s name in Korean.) The people I’ve been in touch with in Seoul–journalists working for Western news agencies, Korean journalists, and one government contact–don’t know much more. 

My sources say they’re scrambling for information as much as everyone else. The U.S. State Department has put a lid on press comments except for the most innocuous and reassuring statements. The Swedish ambassador, who has acted as a go-between in Pyongyang, has conducted himself with diplomatic discretion, and the Swedish government has shared only basic information. Analysts and academics offer a wide range of opinion. The Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) personnel at the United Nations have not answered my phone calls.

Here’s what we can say with a fair degree of accuracy: The women are being held in a government guest house outside of Pyongyang. In letters and phone calls to their families, and according to the Swedish government, they are comfortable and not being physically abused, although they are not free to leave and cannot see each other. As of this posting, the status of their trial on charges of illegally entering the DPRK and unspecified “hostile acts” is entirely unclear. It remains uncertain what happened on March 17, when they were arrested near the Tumen River. The only American witness, Current TV producer Mitchell Koss who has since returned to the United States, is not speaking publicly. Neither are other Current TV staffers.

Before the women left the United States to work on a story about North Korean refugees living in China, they told their families they had no intention of crossing into North Korea itself. The families have apologized if, in fact, the pair did cross the border. The Tumen River forms a surprisingly porous border with China.

Their innocence or guilt might be a side issue in determining their fate. Ling’s sister, the journalist Lisa Ling, said that when Laura spoke to her by phone (and everyone assumes calls are closely monitored) she stated clearly that the only way they would be released is if the United States and North Korea spoke directly, one-on-one–a longstanding DPRK demand. The United States has never met that demand, always dealing jointly with South and North Korea or in the context of the Six-Party Talks started under the first Bush administration.

What has worked in the past is for a prominent American figure to travel to Pyongyang to speak with the DPRK. Bill Richardson, the former congressman and current New Mexico governor, is a prime example: In November 1996, he won the release of Evan Hunziker, an American who swam across the Yalu River into North Korea.

The challenge for the State Department is to carry off something similar and do it in as short a time period as possible for the benefit of Lee, Ling, and their families. North Korea’s leadership is in a tenuous period of transition in which Kim Jong-il’s youngest son, Kim Jong-un, appears to be groomed for succession. Most of the analysts I’ve been speaking with read the recent spate of nuclear tests and missile launches as part of that succession process.

Lee and Ling are caught up in this political situation. It would be wonderful if North Korea and the United States, and all the others involved in those Six-Party Talks (China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea) could agree that the fate of two reporters, who were pursuing a tough story in the best traditions of journalism, transcended decades of hostility and inertia and joined to get them released.

In Oslo this week, at a meeting of the  International Freedom of Expression Exchange,  CPJ enlisted 40 media rights organizations  to sign on to such a proposal.

And there’s a step you can take. Here’s a Facebook page–Detained In North Korea : Journalist Laura Ling and Euna Lee, please help–that is being used to organize efforts on behalf of the two women. The families fully back the effort and finds the public support reassuring.