Attacks on the Press 2009: North Korea

Top Developments
• Two U.S. journalists held for five months after crossing border.
• Citizen reporters begin to smuggle news out of the country.

Key Statistic
1st: Ranking on CPJ’s list of Most Censored Nations.

During a diplomatic standoff that lasted almost five months, two American journalists from San Francisco-based Current TV were arrested, tried, pardoned, and released. Charged with illegally crossing the border from China on March 17, they had been sentenced to 20 years of “reform through hard labor” after a closed-door trial, according to the official Korea Central News Agency.


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Euna Lee, a video editor on one of her first reporting trips, and Laura Ling, an experienced reporter for Current TV, returned to the United States after former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang to escort them home following behind-the-scenes negotiations. While in North Korea, Clinton met with leader Kim Jong Il, who granted the pardons. Although some press reports said Clinton had given an apology to Kim, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said no such apology had been offered. The journalists’ hard labor sentence was never carried out; they were held, separated from each other, in a combination guesthouse and government-run hotel outside Pyongyang. Although psychologically distressed, they said they were never physically abused.

Several factors complicated the situation: The vice president in the Clinton administration, Al Gore, was a founder and investor in Current TV; tensions on the Korean Peninsula were running high because of North Korean missile tests and the allegations by many in the international community that the country was resuming its capacity to produce material suitable for use in nuclear weapons. Many Korea watchers linked the militaristic behavior to the need for the government to assert its domestic authority after the announcement by official North Korea media that Kim’s son, Kim Jong Un, was to be named his successor. Without diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, the United States relied on the Swedish Embassy in North Korea to represent it on the Americans’ behalf. Ambassador Mats Foyer met several times with the two journalists while they were being held but was not allowed to attend their trial.

Lee and Ling had traveled to the border area with the head of Current TV’s Vanguard investigative unit, Mitchell Koss, an experienced and well-traveled television journalist. Ling was Koss’ deputy and the most prominent reporter in the Web-based broadcaster’s investigative group. After they were freed, the two women recounted that Koss and their Chinese driver were able to escape North Korean police after they had crossed the Tumen River, briefly entering the country illegally.

The group said they had been covering the story of North Koreans in the border area within China, particularly the plight of women forced into prostitution. The two women said the groundwork for their trip had been organized by the Rev. Chun Ki-won of Durihana Mission, a fundamentalist Christian group with roots in South Korea and the United States. The Associated Press, which reached Chun in Seoul while the women were being held, said “he warned them repeatedly to stay away from the long and often unmarked border. Armed North Korean guards are known to threaten journalists who venture to the region to get a glimpse into the reclusive nation.” Current TV suppressed all discussion of the case on its Web site while the women were being held.

The use of a prominent U.S. politician to retrieve Americans held in North Korea was not without precedent. In 1994, Bill Richardson, a U.S. congressman at the time, flew to Pyongyang to win the release of a U.S. helicopter pilot and the body of a crew member after their aircraft had strayed across the demilitarized zone. In 1996, Richardson brought back an American who had been held for three months on spying charges after swimming in the Yalu River, which forms another part of the border with China. And, at the height of the Cold War in 1968, North Korea released about 80 crew members of the USS Pueblo after holding them for 11 months and torturing them. Reports in The New York Times from the time say the U.S. issued an apology and a written statement admitting the Pueblo had been in North Korean waters.

Advocacy for the release of Lee and Ling occurred on many levels. North Korea is the most heavily censored country in the world and is notoriously resistant to outside influence, so CPJ advocated for all members of the stalled Six Party Talks—China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia, and the United States—to work together for the release of the women. The families of the two journalists, led by Laura’s sister, Lisa Ling, who is also a journalist, maintained a low-key grassroots movement that held quiet vigils around the country, and made use of Facebook and Twitter for appeals. A few days before the journalists’ June 8 trial, the families appeared on several popular U.S. interview programs, pleading to North Korea for clemency. It was a tactic they repeated later as the situation dragged on.

Lisa Ling, who stayed in close touch with CPJ, said she received almost daily briefings from the State Department or Gore. She had also organized a group of North Korea experts who were advising her on possible strategies and outcomes. She told CPJ that her sister (who, like Lee, had been allowed to communicate with her family in the U.S. through telephone and letters) had strongly advocated for her own freedom, having persuaded her captors that she should be allowed to communicate with her family to bring pressure on the U.S. government for their release.

Attitudes in the United States toward the two journalists ranged from widespread grassroots support to anger over their having taken what some saw as unnecessary risk. In South Korea, criticism was greater. Some South Koreans were angry that the women were allowed to communicate with their families, while a South Korean factory manager working in North Korea’s Kaesong industrial complex had been grabbed for espionage around the same time but held incommunicado. Only the man’s last name, Yoo, was released by the North Koreans. He was released several weeks after Lee and Ling.

While CPJ research showed that North Korea remained the world’s most censored nation, information began leaking out at a growing rate in 2009. The story Lee and Ling were covering—the plight of women who crossed into China—was part of a larger story about the porous border with China and the influx of Koreans seeking economic opportunity, fleeing famine, and, in some cases, escaping political persecution. The flow into China accelerated during the famine of 1990 in North Korea and has never really stopped. And, with improved relations between South Korea and China, the border area had become a lookout post into North Korea. Fundamentalist Christian groups, like the Rev. Chun Ki-won’s Durihana Mission used by Lee and Ling, operated on the Chinese side of the river, aiding refugees, gathering information, and proselytizing.

Kay Seok, a researcher for Human Rights Watch and an expert on Korea affairs, said that for the first time “reporters” with no training had emerged in North Korea. These were North Koreans who surreptitiously recorded conversations with government officials or even people on the street, then smuggled the recordings out of the country, where they were transcribed and published in media outlets in South Korea and Japan. These new information-gatherers were paid for their efforts, and were primarily motivated by the money, she said.

Seok wrote in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that “for many North Koreans the changes set in motion by the famine are irreversible. In fact, many North Koreans that I have met, especially the young, say they want more change. They have survived the country’s worst disaster in half a century. Compared with their parents, they are far more informed, open-minded and unafraid. And therein lies hope for North Korea’s future.”