Monitoring the Lee, Ling case in North Korea

By Bob Dietz/Asia Program Coordinator on June 5, 2009 5:13 PM ET

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.


For those on Twitter, there is also @LiberateLaura, a page dedicated to the Ling-Lee cause. Please consider following, and also signing the family-sponsored petition:

Hi Bob!
There's one more witness I would like to mention. Have you been able to get any information on that ethnic Korean local guide (a citizen of China) who was with Mitch, Euna, and Laura on March 17?
I have read in a recent article by Donald Kirk that there are activists in South Korea who know about that person and actually had legitimate suspicions. To the best of my knowledge, this witness has vanished.
I believe the key question that remains to be answered is "Who hired that local guide in Yanji?"
Lisa Ling keeps saying on her media tour that it was not the Current TV crew's intentions to set foot on North Korean soil when they left San Francisco, but evidently those plans changed once the local guide in Yanji took charge of their itinerary on March 17.
My theory is that the guide tipped off the North Koreans by cellphone in exchange for a hefty monetary reward. How much do you think the bounty would be for 3 US passport holding journalists to be delivered into the hands of North Korean sentries?
Keep up the good work!
Best regards,


Thank you for you in-depth report on these two young reporters. It's a sad day in the world when any goverment takes any human being hostage. We the people are losing the war when goverment steals are reporters and the corporate con(troll)ers close down are newspapers. We must all stand-up and call out (I'M AS MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE!)
Again thank you and keep up the good fight!
Shawn C.

thanks bob for one of the more informative articles on this distressing situation which i hope will be speedily and peacefully resolved! is there an embassy person in north korea or anyone at all like that can be contacted by email? i have on been on theonly site containing real info...facebook, but did not see anyone like that listed.
jamie jo

jamie jo france June 6, 2009 3:41:22 PM ET

Euna Lee worked as an editor (like on an Aviv) and this was her first overseas assignment. It's clear she was chosen because she spoke Korean. I doubt that the Chinese fixer took charge, esp. with a very experienced journalist like Koss around. He'd been Lisa Ling's producer at Channel 1, and has many years in the business.

Laura Ling, despite her title at Vanguard, didn't have any indepth network news training. So, why did Current TV execs. assign or agree to these relatively inexperienced young women going on such a potentially risky story? While they're not citizen journalists, like Huff Post bloggers, they don't have the backup muscle that protects network news crews.

Why are Current's lawyers keeping the real story as to how they got there and what happened suppressed?

The original itinerary for the Current TV crew was only to interview North Korean refugees in the town of Yanji (Jilin province) and then visit the city of Dandong (Liaoning province). Setting foot on the frozen Tumen River was completely unnecessary for their original assignment.
They received assistance in organizing their China itinerary from South Korean Reverend Chun Ki-won, who told them specifically not to get too close to the Tumen River border area.
Therefore it's not unreasonable to conclude that the local guide likely initiated the idea to suddenly take 3 US passport holding journalists to the Tumen River after they had completed their interviews in Yanji.
Reports from South Korean activists familiar with Yanji have led me to conclude that my theory is correct, as they were suspicious of that particular guide all along.
Find the guide (likely vanished for good with a nice payoff in hand), or get Mitch Koss to talk, and you will probably hear a story that varies little from mine.

June 8. 2009 Juche 98
American Journalists Sentenced to Reform through Labor

Pyongyang, June 8 (KCNA) -- The Central Court of the DPRK staged a trial of American journalists Laura Ling and Seung-eun Lee from June 4 to 8.

The trial confirmed the grave crime they committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing as they had already been indicted and sentenced each of them to 12 years of reform through labor.

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