North Korea: Two American Journalists Sentenced to Hard Labor

News coming out of Pyongyang is not encouraging. After being accused of illegally crossing the border to North Korea, American Current TV journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee have been sentenced to 12 years of hard labor (according to CNN).  Jillian York rounded up blog posts for Global Voices prior to the journalists’ sentencing.

The bleak outcome is eliciting strong reactions online from those who support freedom of press and want North Korea to release the two journalists. A Facebook page for Laura and Euna already has more than five thousand members. Today they are asking the public to respect the families privacy at this moment and not to get emotional:

“You will have many emotions racing. Please try to stay clear of anger. Anger is a waste of energy and what North Korea wants of you.We can and will work together and use our minds, to work this through.”

LiberateLaura, a blog authored by Los Angeles entertainment journalist Richard Horgan, describes events happening in North Korea as “worthy of Shakespeare” and questions the decision of the “Hermit Kingdom” to arrest Laura Ling and Euna Lee:

“Unfortunately, into that mad kingdom, just ahead of the chaos, wandered @Current journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. On Tuesday, March 17th, whether by accident or the trickery of a paid-off Chinese guide, they are alleged to have stepped across an invisible border line at a bridge crossing between China and North Korea. Harsh interrogations and two and a half months of solitary confinement followed, and now, after a brief trial, an absurd sentence of 12 years of hard labor for illegally crossing the border and an unspecified “grave crime.”

The Shakespearean analogy is useful because it allows us, just slightly, to make sense of the unfathomable June 8th Ling-Lee verdict. Kim Jong-il is indeed pushing it to the limit on the diplomatic, nuclear and innocent Americans fronts, all in a bid to reassure the country’s military hard liners that a Kim Jong-un succession will maintain the Amy-first status quo.”

On YouTube, supporters are posting videos calling for the immediate release of Laura and Euna. There are also videos and photos of vigils in South Korea, San Fransisco and elsewhere in the United States.

Here is as public service announcement from Pacific Rim Video and Kelly Hu:

As the public and various organizations promoting free press are coming together to call for Laura and Euna's release, some are now questioning the reactions of United States State Department and former U.S. vice president Al Gore (the founder and chairman of Current TV, which employed Euna and Laura) to the situation.

At Asia Times, Donald Kirk says:

“The North Koreans also get offended every time a top-level American visitor visits the region, and one immediate complication of the trial is that it coincides with a trip to South Korea, China and Japan of a US delegation led by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.

Steinberg has not talked publicly about the two women but has made clear in meetings with South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak and other top officials that the US is not willing to negotiate their fate. Could he have had their case in mind when he assured Lee that the US would not offer more aid for North Korea. “

He then proceeds to speculate about Al Gore's involvement in negotiations:

“How about giving them up to a high-level American delegation? Gore comes to mind as the man for the job in view of his control over the network for which the two women were working.

Gore has been strangely silent throughout, all the more reason to think he's waiting to give face to the North Koreans and rescue the two women – a happy ending that may be too much to hope for.”

Gore would be perfect for the mission. His presence would acknowledge North Korea's need for recognition as a member of the global nuclear club but would not constitute official US recognition of anything.

Not everyone is taking Gore's silence so lightly.  John in Condition Yellow takes Gore's lack of involvement less lightly, saying:

I don't expect Mr. Global Warming to just drop what he's doing and go sailing off to north Korea to negotiate the release of two people who work for him. The Nobel Peace Prize winner is far too busy saving the planet. Right? But how long would it take for him to issue a simple statement like, “Hey, Kim Jomg Il! Let my people go, or we will take your carbon credits away.”

But seriously, am I the only one who thinks that even a simple public statement from Mr. Pulitzer, condemning the trial, would at least be the decent thing to do for people who work for him?

Hmmm. Okay, maybe Bill Richardson would be more effective.

But one thing is for certain, as Jo points out in the blog Jo's Department – everyone is wishing for the journalists’ safe return:

I hope that they do not endure Pyongyang’s horrific (as described by escapees) prison system and that two journalists could safely return and be reunited to their families soon.


  • phil

    Who really thinks the Jackson – Richardson formula is still viable, especially after Richardson was just on Larry King talking about the North Koreans as if they were the object of an anthropological study. I would think Lil Kim gets CNN.

    And where the hell are the Chinese? They’ve got the stick, do they lack the balls?

  • I think it’s bad form for Al Gore to do so little as he is directly responsible for his employees. These woman worked for him and now he sits in silence? I talk about this on my blog:

  • The “Shakespearean analogy” quotation on Richard Horton’s LiberateLaura blog should be properly attributed to Ben MacIntyre from the UK’s Times Online.

    I am glad to see MacIntyre’s conjecture posted here on Global Voices Online as it supports my theory that Current TV’s crew were duped by the “trickery of a paid-off Chinese guide” on the morning that they were supposed to proceed to Dandong from Yanji. Somehow they took the scenic route or a detour near the Tumen River.

    • thank you for pointing that. i apologize for missing that out. here is what LiberateLaura says:

      “It was a writer for @timesonline, Ben MacIntyre, who noted a few weeks ago that the drama currently unfolding in North Korea was one worthy of Shakespeare. To wit, “Mad king (Kim Jong-il) attempts to secure succession for favored son (Kim Jong-un) by a show of strength, unleashing chaos.”

  • […] asked by the CPJ blog what she would say to journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee who were recently sentenced to 12 years hard labor in North Korea. Cancel this […]

  • Thanks for the helpful comments Spelunker. I think it’s probably better to be cautious about speculating and casting blame. No one seems to have a lot of information about what happened and the media are as susceptible to rumors as readers are. There are also reports in China that the Chinese guide was arrested. As far as I can see there is no evidence that their arrest was a trap, but there are certainly lots of conflicting rumors and unanswered questions.

  • Reports in China that the Chinese guide was arrested? Please post a link here; pardon me but isn’t that what Global Voices Online is for? I can read Chinese and have not found any such report. Most say that Mitch Koss and the guide were “detained”.
    Here are 3 examples from different Chinese media:

    1. 有报导称美国摄影师Mitch Koss和一名中国导游被中国警方拘留
    2. 她们的同事高斯(Mitch Koss)与中国向导则被中国边界警卫拘捕
    3. 另一名美国摄影师Mitch Koss和一名中国向导被中国警方阻止

    To use the word “arrest” (逮捕) would imply that a particular charge was formerly brought against the guide.
    It’s relatively safe to assume that the guide was let go just like Mitch was allowed to go home soon after the March 17 incident.
    China is not known for investigative journalism, so don’t expect local media in Jilin province (let alone a reporter from anywhere in mainland China) to go snooping around Yanji in search of that guide’s whereabouts.
    Nobody is more cautious than Spelunker when speculating on what really happened on March 17.
    My analysis is based on legitimate media reports and familiarity with the situation on the China/North Korea border. (3 infiltrations, all successful, from China onto North Korean territory in 2002 and 2005.)

    The frustrating aspect of monitoring this story is not so much the unanswered questions as it it the unasked questions. Nobody is asking “Who hired that local guide in Yanji?” Nobody is asking “What was that guide’s name?” Nobody is asking the South Korean activists familiar with that local guide in Yanji to elaborate on their suspicions.

    While Hollywood paparazzi will follow Britney Spears and Mel Gibson all over Los Angeles, no L.A. reporter is bold enough to put a microphone in front of the mouth of Mitch Koss (who will refuse to comment anyway.) In fact very few major media news organizations in America even dare to mention his name. Go ahead and do a Google news search for “Mitch Koss” and see how many results you get!

    What evidence would you like that could prove once and for all that the local guide in Yanji played a part in the capture of Current TV’s crew? Nobody knows where the guide is now and Mitch Koss won’t talk.

    Here’s what we do know:
    1. The Current TV crew was scheduled to go to Dandong on March 17, thus the pre-dawn departure time from Yanji.
    2. The Tumen River border area was not on their original itinerary and they were warned not to go near the boundary.
    3. In Yanji a bounty system exists for the arrest of North Korean refugees and activists who assist them.

    Now I will add another informative post below that will allow you to draw your own conclusion.

  • Here is the transcript of Anderson Cooper’s interview on June 9 with Jim Butterworth and Mike Kim concerning Yanji and the Tumen River area, where Current TV’s crew was on assignment. I have added my own comment at the end of the transcript. CNN’s AC360 blog still has not published my comment as it’s now been “awaiting moderation” for nearly 12 hours.
    (2 other comments have been approved to the blog after I posted mine.)

    Guest Jim Butterworth talks about the area around the Tumen River including Yanji, where Current TV’s crew was on assignment.

    Jim Butterworth: “…it is commonly believed that there are hundreds of North Korean agents who actually had infiltrated the Chinese side, which is almost entirely ethnic Korean .”

    Anderson Cooper: “Why would they do that?”

    Butterworth: “To capture not only refugees that had escaped into China… In fact there is a bounty paid to Chinese citizens that would turn in North Korean refugees but the bounty is actually 10 times that if they would turn in the activists that would help them or anyone that would assist them.”

    Mike Kim; “… North Korea will send spies posing as refugees to infiltrate networks and as a result there have been people abducted… and it really threatens the work of NGO’s there.”

    Spelunker: “So then it’s not unreasonable to assume that the ethnic Korean citizen of China that led Current TV’s crew to the Tumen River border on the morning of their departure from Yanji to Dandong could have been acting on an extremely high bounty after tipping off Pyongyang agents that 3 US passport holding journalists were in Yanji interviewing North Korean refugees.”

    So, Solana, here is my question for you: Can you imagine the following cell phone conversation on March 17?

    Guide: It’s me again!
    NK agent: You have another refugee for us?

    Guide: No, something better.
    NK agent: A South Korean activist? That will be 10 times the usual reward…

    Guide: What would be 1000 times the usual reward?
    NK agent: 1000 times? You’re kidding; you funny guide. Who could be worth so much money?

    Guide: How about 3 US passport holding journalists?
    NK agent: Really? What are they doing in Yanji?

    Guide: Interviewing refugees. They have taken video over the last 2 days. There’s more!
    NK agent? More? What could possibly be better than that?

    Guide: OK, are you ready for this? One is a female Korean-American citizen…
    NK agent: Good, I can communicate with her!

    Guide: Another one is the sister of Lisa Ling!
    NK agent: LISA LING? You must be kidding? Are you sure they are related? WOW! Dear Leader Kim Jong-il will be so happy! Uh…golly gee… so who’s the third one?

    Guide: The executive producer for a media company that is owned by former US vice president Al Gore!
    NK Agent: *faints*
    Guide: Hello? HELLO? You still there?

    NK Agent: Oh. my. GOD!
    Guide: Show me the money! Ha ha HAAAA!

  • LOL the script is very helpful. OK, so regardless of how they got in to this terrible mess (which I still think could have happened in more ways than one), have you given any thought to how the Ling and Lee could be released?

  • You have to believe Lisa Ling when she says the Current TV crew had no intention of crossing the border into North Korea when they left San Francisco.
    They didn’t heed the warning of the South Korean Christian activist (Chun Ki-won) who helped plan their China itinerary and told them specifically not to go near the actual boundary at the Tumen River border area.
    Therefore only one other person could have influenced Mitch Koss, Laura Ling, and Euna Lee on March 17 after they checked out of their Yanji hotel.
    Their local guide is guilty. If CNN, ABC, Los Angeles Times, and other major American news media won’t draw this conclusion for you then Spelunker has to connect the dots.

    Do you still think there could be more than one way?
    Do you really believe the Current TV crew woke up at 4 a.m. on March 17 and together decided it might be really cool to take a sunrise stroll along the Tumen River and try to film an interview with a North Korean sentry?

    As you wish: regardless of how Mitch Koss evaded capture and the two female reporters he left on the Tumen River battlefield got into this mess, …have I given any thought on how Laura and Euna can be released?
    Yes, it’s actually very simple: Al Gore has to go to Pyongyang on a “hu-monetary-ian” mission and buy them back. He’ll pay a price likely 100 times more than what Kim Jong-il paid the Yanji guide for them. They’ve already got at least a US $10,000 hotel bill on top of that (separate rooms, mind you!).

  • Reverend Chun Ki Won of South Korea helped plan the itinerary of Current TV’s crew in China. I’ve been tracking news articles that mention his name and came across this recent one from Voice of America’s Chinese website on June 9:

    据报导,一名安排两人采访行程的全姓韩裔牧师Chun Ki-won表示,两人从首尔飞到中国东北的延吉,下一站是辽宁省的丹东。



    There are three things interesting about this article:

    1. First of all, it mentions that Laura Ling and Euna Lee flew together to Yanji (China) from Seoul after meeting with Reverend Chun Ki Won. VOA does not mention a third Current TV journalist that accompanied them (Mitch Koss) at all throughout the entire article! There is also no mention of their local guide in China anywhere in the entire article.

    2. Reverend Chun and another pastor who lives in Los Angeles (Shin Dong-chul), claim that both China and North Korea have spied on their e-mail and telephone communications for many years, so Reverend Chun believes North Korea monitored the moves of the 2 reporters in Yanji and waited for the opportunity to take action when they reached the ice of the frozen Tumen River. (Once again no mention of the fact that 2 more people were present on the day of the women’s capture; Mitch and their guide)

    3. Shin Dong-chul goes on to say: “I know most American reporters would not be so irrational as to go onto North Korean territory, but maybe these two reporters got too close to the boundary. Plus North Korea was monitoring them, just like they monitor me and Reverend Chun, waiting until they (the two women) got too close and then grabbing them.” (The Chinese phrase “把她们抓过去” means that the women were grabbed and pulled over. )

    Why would VOA publish an article in Chinese about this story involving Current TV’s reporters and not mention Mitch Koss or the local guide that accompanied them in China? If the target audience is China’s citizens, wouldn’t they be interested in hearing about a citizen of China who was an eyewitness to this intriguing international incident?
    And is Mitch Koss such a big secret that the Voice of America dare not voice his name?

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