Two American journalists arrested by North Korean border guards on March 17, 2009 will be put on trial June 4 for entering the country illegally and committing “hostile acts.” Limited news and information about the journalists’ situation and the lack of direct diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea have exacerbated the situation.
Much remains unclear about the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Laura Ling, a Chinese-American, and Euna Lee, a Korean-American, both of whom work for the San Francisco-based television station Current TV.
Whether Ling, Lee, cameraman Mitch Koss, or their unidentified Chinese guide crossed the border into North Korea, and if so, whether they did so intentionally, is unclear. The New York Times reported March 21 that the crew had traveled to the border area between China and North Korea along the Tumen River to report on North Korean refugees crossing into China. The Times reported that the Tumen is narrow, partially frozen, and dry in the area where Ling and Lee were working, and they could have been confused about exactly where the border lay. According to The Times, South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo reported that the journalists crossed the Tumen River and were arrested just before sunrise on March 17.
According to Reuters on March 19, however, some South Korean media had reported that South Korean government officials said the North Korean guards crossed the border into Chinese territory to arrest the two women after they ignored warnings to stop filming.
According to The Times, The Chosun Ilbo reported that Koss and the group’s guide “freed themselves from the armed North Korean soldiers and ran back to China, while the two women were overpowered.” Reuters reported March 24 that media reports said Koss and the guide were detained by Chinese border police and later released. Reuters quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on March 24 saying, “The male American citizen involved in the case has left China.” The Times of London reported April 25 that Koss was back in the United States.
According to Reuters on March 24, South Korean newspaper the JoongAng Ilbo reported that Ling and Lee were driven in separate cars to a suburb of Pyongyang, the North Korean capitol, on March 18, where they were held in a guesthouse by intelligence officers and interrogated, according to unnamed intelligence sources.
The Associated Press (AP) reported on March 30 that the state-run (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), said “The illegal entry of U.S. reporters into the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] and their suspected hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their statements,” and that preparations to indict the Americans were underway as the investigation continued.
The New York Times reported May 14 that KCNA announced the June 4 trial date and said North Korea’s highest court, the Central Court, will hear the case, indicating that the journalists will have no opportunity to appeal. The court usually hands down its verdict at the end of a one-day hearing, The New York Times reported.
According to The New York Times on March 31, South Korean officials said Ling and Lee would be the first U.S. citizens to ever be indicted and tried in North Korea. The AP reported April 25 that they are the first Americans to be arrested there since 1996.
South Korean legal expert Moon Dae-hong told the AP that under North Korea’s criminal code, conviction for illegal entry could mean up to three years in a labor camp, while charges of espionage or “hostility toward North Koreans”—which could be considered “hostile acts”—could mean five to 10 years in prison. The New York Times said on April 1 that the Korean criminal code calls for “education through labor” for people convicted of “hostile acts.”
Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported May 1 that President Barack Obama, in a statement marking May 3 as “World Press Freedom Day,” said his administration was “especially concerned about the citizens from our own country currently under detention abroad: individuals such as Roxana Saberi in Iran, and Euna Lee and Laura Ling in North Korea.” (For more on Saberi’s case, see “Saberi Released from Prison in Iran, Sentence Suspended” on page 19 of this issue of the Silha Bulletin.)
The AP reported April 25 that because the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, officials have relied on the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to negotiate on its behalf over the detention of the American journalists. U.S. officials told the AP a Swedish envoy has met with both journalists. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said April 24 “We continue to call on the North Koreans to release the two Americans so they can be returned to their families. We’ll continue to work this issue through diplomatic channels.”
Current TV is a San Francisco-based media company launched in 2005 by former Vice President Al Gore. Its programming is created by both professionals and members of the public, and is offered via cable television and online. According to The Wall Street Journal on April 4, about one-third of Current TV’s television programming is user-generated video. Neither Gore nor Current TV appear to have made any public statements about the arrest of Ling and Lee.
The arrest of the American journalists came at a precarious diplomatic moment. The April 25 AP story said North Korea tested a rocket on April 5, defying international calls to cancel the launch because it was seen by some as a test of technology for deploying a long-range missile. North Korea said the launch was a successful attempt to send a satellite into orbit.
– Sara Cannon
Silha Center Staff