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.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
"The others held are all of a clandestine nature," says Mr. Kim. "They don't admit they are holding them, but this is something they do not hide. The US will make a big issue." Eventually, he predicts, "they will go on trial" – and possibly get lengthy prison sentences to be reduced in negotiations.
"Maybe North Korea should show a goodwill gesture," he says, "but that's not going to happen right away."
In the meantime, looking ahead to freeing them eventually, North Korean authorities are believed not be treating them badly by the standard of a system in which beatings are nearly inevitable, torture is frequent, and executions routine for those suspected of espionage or disloyalty.
Swedish diplomats, acting on behalf of the US, which does not have relations with North Korea, have visited the two near Pyongyang. Current TV, based in San Francisco, also has an avenue of influence through Al Gore, half-owner of the network. Mr. Gore is believed to have communicated directly with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he knows well from their eight years in the White House– she as first lady, he as vice president.
The mystery of their capture
Their case is still more complicated, however, by the mystery of how they were captured.