American journalists could be bargaining chips for North Korea
A documentary critical of the North, filmed by a family member of one of the journalists, could complicate their case.
Seoul, South Korea
When they were nabbed by North Korean guards along China's northeastern Tumen River border with North Korea, reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee were filming for Al Gore's Current TV network on an especially sensitive topic: the flight of North Korean defectors from the horrors of starvation, disease, jailing, torture and beatings.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, detained by the regime whose brutality they were trying to report, their documentary work could make their case extremely problematic. When or whether North Korean authorities will want to release the two is far from clear. Their ordeal has become all the more politicized after a stunning series of events this month reversed several years of painstaking progress on getting the North to agree to denuclearization.
"North Korea is waiting for the maximum leverage," says Tim Peters, a pastor whose organization, "Helping Hands Korea," has worked for years with North Korean defectors here and in China along the Tumen River border. "They will put them on trial and get as much mileage for some kind of diplomatic advantage."
For North Korea, the timing was ideal. North Korea test-fired a long-range Taepodong-2 missile on April 5; on April 14, it said it was resuming its nuclear-weapons program and expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency after the UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the launch. At the same time, North Korea said it would "never" again join six-party talks, under which it agreed in 2007 to disable and then dismantle all its nuclear facilities in return for a vast infusion of aid.
The fate of the two American female journalists, who are now prisoners in a "state guest house" near Pyongyang, may depend on whether the United States resumes negotiations with North Korea, possibly on a bilateral basis, as the North has long wanted, rather than in a multilateral format.
More reason to take a tough stand
Mr. Peters suspects that the National Geographic documentary, in which Lisa Ling secretly shot film on a hidden camera while pretending to be on the team of an eye doctor from Nepal, will give North Korean authorities all the more reason to adopt a tough stance toward Ling and Lee. Lisa Ling pilloried North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as "a dictator," remarking, "We've started to get a sense of what it's like to be trapped under the iron grip of Kim Jong Il."
"This film would be considered embarrassing for the regime," says Peters. "Part of the film showed people trying to leave. They did a reenactment. It definitely brought out the human rights issue."
Kim Sang-hun, a former UN official who has been active for years on behalf of North Korean defectors, agrees North Korean outrage over the National Geographic report may complicate pleas for the women's release. "North Korean authorities are not going to be happy about that documentary," he says. "They may have taken this as an opportunity for revenge."
He does not believe, however, that the two are destined to remain in North Korea indefinitely. Their case differs from those of approximately 500 South Koreans, mostly fishermen picked up in North Korean territorial waters, as well as 20 or 30 Japanese who were kidnapped from Japanese soil in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and are believed still to be living in the North.