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


  1. Mitch Koss was supposed to be the producer and the real brains behind this misadventure. I have to wonder if he was encouraging them to go across the river so he could shoot with his camera them crossing? I’m assuming he didn’t cross the river considering he wasn’t caught by the North Koreans.

    It also seems like the speculation is continuing to mount that their guide was a North Korean informer which I think is plausible but impossible to confirm at this point.

    1. I forgot to mention that I like the ROKdrop blog, but not some of the blog comments (then again, I’ve reminded myself that I don’t have to read them).

      1. It seems to be more of a U.S. military scene over there. My preferred port of call is One Free Korea, in spite of the foghorn emphasis on regime change in Pyongyang — unrealistic in the extreme, but super-well researched overall and a reasonably high level of dialogue with other commenters. Like “Spelunker” — a very witty dude who doesn’t seem to run his own blog but is one of the more reasoned (albeit crazily so) voices on the Ling-Lee border debacle. I didn’t understand all that stuff with Paul Song, but in general the One Free Korea keeps me on my toes. Glad to see you back at this blog!

      2. Jeremy I’m glad you like the ROK Drop. With a high number of people reading the site the occasional trolls always pop up. Many of them post from Internet cafes so you can’t ban their IP address. That is why I encourage people to ignore the trolls and eventually they go away.

        Adam, OFK is a great site and one I read daily as well. Spelunker’s comments a lot on the Ling/Lee posts on my site as well and he is incredibly informative, but definitely a unique personality.

        1. GI, I must agree about Spelunker (his “trial” of Paul Song was quite a thing to behold, but of course I’m sympathetic to his methods because he is extremely talented and also I have my own over-the-top tendencies to control). I’m currently at work on another translation post that patches up some of the Daily NK’s inconsistencies, since OFK and others rely heavily on Daily NK. There’s no way to keep up with their whole output without a small army of Chinese speakers also fluent in English and the issues involved, but when a post gets kicked around a lot (such as the prostitution story or the ones about NK “agents” floating around in China), I’m making an effort to bring something of value to the table. Glad to see you back at this blog!

  2. GI Korea:

    Perhaps, although as VP of Vanguard, Ling is technically his boss.


    I mentioned it before on the Liberate Laura blog, but Pastor Lee’s comments here contradict what he said in the 8/22 New York Times article covering the same subject.

  3. Both journalists are convicted felons, sentenced to many years for their crimes against North Korea and should be locked up immediately regardless of any pardon because they both violated the Law and were sentenced.

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