American Journalists Accused of Endangerment
South Koreans argue that reporters’ freedom comes with a price
Public outcry over the imprisonment of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee (both from California) after they spent nearly six months confined in North Korea meant that the American government sent Bill Clinton to a dangerous country with which the U.S. has no formal relations to negotiate their release. But the video footage that was confiscated during their arrest put the journalists’ subjects in danger far worse than their own.
Ling and Lee were reporting for the American cable news network Current TV on the human trafficking of North Korean women into China, where they serve as sex workers and are purchased as wives. As part of the story the journalists videotaped and interviewed the pastors, volunteers, and residents of Christian charity Durihana Mission, which ran five secret shelters for the children of North Korean women trafficked into China.
On March 17 of this year the journalists were arrested at the North Korean border and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for “hostile acts.” They were not sent to a labor camp but a special house for foreigners where they could receive packages even though they were kept in cells. They were released on August 5 after former President Bill Clinton met with Kim Jong-Il in the capital city of Pyongyang. However, when Ling and Lee’s footage was confiscated by the North Korean government, the women ended up exposing the identities of the children and pastors living at the Mission as well as the people who helped North Korean refugees cross into China and brought them to the Mission.
News outlets and blogs say they have found evidence that the women intentionally crossed the border, violating international law and putting the subjects of their footage in danger.
The Chinese government shut down all of Durihana Mission’s shelters and deported some of the pastors, many of whom were South Korean or North Korean defectors. The pastors are saying Ling and Lee reported recklessly and weren’t careful enough with the sensitive information and footage they gathered. Those who disagree say that the footage would have been valuable in bringing the plight of the trafficking victims to the public. They say the reporters are not to be blamed for the repercussions of the release of their footage, and that it was inevitable that the material would be confiscated after their arrest.
The women have not come forward with the details of their experiences, but spokespeople for Current TV have said the Durihana Mission’s pastors were telling an incorrect version of the events that went on while Ling and Lee were reporting.
News outlets and blogs say they have found evidence that the women intentionally crossed the border (after they were continually warned not to go near it), violating international law and putting the subjects of their footage in danger. Other people are upset because they say the women need to use their public statements as a way to bring more attention to the North Korean refugees. Thus far the women have spoken out about journalists held captive in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, Korean journalist Kim Seong-cheol, who was acting as the reporters’ guide, is still in prison. Current TV cameraman Mitch Koss had been detained in China but has returned to the U.S.
People are wary of the secrecy surrounding the case, the circumstances of how the women crossed the border, and the potential profit opportunities. The UK newspaper Daily Mail’s web site reports that publisher HarperCollins offered to pay the women $1 million to write about their lives in North Korea.
Clinton’s visit might suggest that the U.S. is willing to start to open up diplomatic relations with North Korea, which was preparing to launch a ballistic missile as the journalists were captured.
Some political analysts worried that the journalists were being held in prison to bring the U.S. to the negotiating table over nuclear issues. Clinton’s visit might suggest that the U.S. is willing to start to open up diplomatic relations with North Korea, which was preparing to launch a ballistic missile as the journalists were captured. The UN Security Council has imposed sanctions against North Korea after they tested a missile in May. The negotiation was even on Kim Jong- Il’s terms; Obama had planned to send Al Gore (who co-founded Current and serves as chairman) but the North Korean leader specifically requested Clinton (the American government was informed by a phone call from Ling to her husband). The North Korean press says Clinton apologized to Kim Jong-Il, but government officials say no apologies or promises were made.
The Women’s Media Center reports that 80 to 90 percent of female North Korean refugees living in China are trafficking victims. North Korea treats refugees— whether they emigrated voluntarily or were trafficked—as criminal defectors. China treats them as illegal immigrants, and deports thousands per year. While a refugee is an emigrant who has fled their country for safety reasons, a trafficked person has been sold and forced to work for others in a new country. These people are vulnerable, and often refugees or immigrants pursuing what seem like work opportunities only to have their identification and rights taken away.
To get involved in international press freedom, check out Reporters without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists, or the International Center for Journalists. Organizations working on behalf of refugees worldwide include Amnesty International and Save North Korean Refugees.
By Claire Austin
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