Le Monde Reports on Laura Ling and Euna Lee

Le Monde conducts its own investigation of Euna Lee and Laura Ling’s cross-border excursion, arrest by North Korean troops, and the consequent chaotic aftermath among South Korean aid organizations working in Northeast China.  The article, by experienced Asia correspondent Philippe Pons, isn’t laden with bombshells, but it remains nevertheless potentially an important part of the record.

Philippe Pons, “Enquête: Deux héroïnes très contestées [Investigation: two very controversial heroines], Le Monde, 9 September 2009. [Rough translation by Adam Cathcart]

After a long silence, the two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, freed in early August thanks to Bill Clinton after four months in captivity in North Korea for their “illegal entry,” recount their misadventure in the Los Angeles Times.   Received by media in the United States like heroines, animated by the mission to “shed light in the darkness,” according to their expression, the two journalists , in the eyes of one party of South Koreans,   were “irresponsible” and put networks of humanitarian organizations in danger operating on the Chinese frontier to aid North Korean refugees.

Working in March for the American television network Current TV, they were making a report about North Korean refugees in the region of the Tumen River, which marks the frontier between China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).  They recall having crossed the frozen river, at the instigation of their guide, to walk on the North Korean coast.

[QUOTE from L.A. Times editorial]

Arrested, the two women were interrogated and condemned to 12 years of hard labor for “illegal entry” and “hostile acts” against the DPRK.  They were not sent to a work camp, but were brought to another detention area which is uncertain.  [Ed.:  For speculation on the site of their detention in Pyongyang, see ROK Drop.]

During the long winters in the region, the Tumen is frozen.  Nothing here definitively indicates the frontier.  To cross is easy, but one takes the risk which, in terms of information, does not “pay.”  While they admirably hoped to “shed a bit of light” on a closed state, why was it such an essential thing to briefly set foot on North Korean soil?

“Their act was irresponsible,” says an individual, who wishes to remain anonymous, who runs one of the South Korean organizations which provides clandestine aid to refugees.  “It not only endangered the refugees by putting film into the hands of Chinese and North Korean police who in the future will recognize their faces, but it also endangered the networks which try to aid [the refugees].  Because of the journalists, work on the frontier has become more dangerous, and the refugees are the ones who suffer.”

Among the tens of thousands of North Koreans who have passed into China, some are migrants who seek work and return to the DPRK; the others are refugees who desire to go on to Seoul.  China considers all such immigrants illegal and, conforming to the 1960 accord between the two states, rends them back to the DPRK, where they are more or less severely punished as a function of their having passed into recidivism or having had contact in China with South Korean christian organizations.

If they are not taken by the hand [pris en main] by the humanitarian organizations, they risk deception by smugglers who promise them false papers.  The female migrants can become prizes on the “market of women,” which sells them to Chinese bachelors or into prostitution networks.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee recall how, once arrested, they destroyed the list of their contacts and effaced the images in their camera.  But the pastor Lee Chan-woo who works in Yanji (about sixty kilometers from the frontier), declared to the South Korean press that, two hours days after they were arrested, his house was searched, while five clandestine orphanages with 20 Sino-North Korean children were closed by the police.

“These children,” he says, born of the union of Koreans and Chinese, “have already been forcefully separated from their repatriated mothers by the Chinese police, and now experience a new trauma due to the hunt for the orphanages of the humanitarian organizations,” comments Tim Peter, who directs Seoul Helping Hands Korea.

“I did my best to aid the journalists who had seen me a few days before,” recalls Pastor Lee.  “I asked them not to film the kids.  I don’t know for sure that they did that,” he continues, describing how the Chinese police in their interrogation mentioned that they could prove his activities via confiscated videos.  “It is thanks to the videos, also the notes and the contact lists of the two journalists and the director (who, along with the guide, escaped the North Korean soldiers but was arrested in China) that the orphanages were discovered,” continues Pastor Lee, who was expelled from China.   [Note: Mitch Koss, usually signified in English-language reports as a lowly "cameraman," is described here by Pastor Lee as a "director" or réalisateur.]

Chun Ki-won, the director of the Durihana Association in Seoul, who introduced Pastor Lee to the journalists, asserts he had warned them to be on guard about the risks which they were taking and which they would take by  by running with contacts who would cross the river.

According to Tim Peter, “it is irresponsible to have crossed the river, if only for one minute.  But the much greater tragedy is without doubt the  information obtained from the journalists by the North Koreans and the information that was furnished to the Chinese police by their guide after his arrest.  He appears to have been a North Korean informer.”

Irrespective of responsibility, China thenceforth deployed new elements to repress the humanitarian networks on the frontier with the DPRK.

Tumen River south of Tumen City -- photo by Chuck Kraus on assignment with Adam Cathcart

Tumen River south of Tumen City -- photo by Chuck Kraus on assignment with Adam Cathcart