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.
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.
"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.
One theory is that the women's guide, a Chinese citizen of Korean ancestry and a member of the large ethnic Korean community in northeastern China who was able to go in and out of North Korea without a visa, could have set them up.
It's still not clear if the two had crossed the line into North Korea, were halfway over the shallow river, covered with ice at the time, or if North Korean police dashed onto the Chinese side and grabbed them. North Koreans regularly cross the river, not necessarily to defect, but to look for food and other goods in short supply at home. They then return, often after paying off border guards.
Kim, the former UN official, says the guide was arrested in North Korea earlier for aiding defectors, was held for six months and then sent back to China.
People caught up in such circumstances, he says, "are normally released on the condition of working for them with foreign journalists," that is, to inform the North Koreans what they are doing and whom they are seeing.
The fear of betraying contacts, defectors – and the families they left behind in North Korea – haunts Durihana, a Seoul-based organization whose pastor, Rev. Chun Ki-won, was imprisoned for ten months in China some years ago for assisting defectors fleeing through China toward sanctuary in Mongolia. Mr. Chun introduced Ling and Lee to defectors, gave them contact names, and advised them of the risks of going too close to the line with North Korea.
"They didn't cover the faces of the North Koreans they interviewed," says Choi Song-jun, a Bible student who works for Durihana. "We really worry about it. We pray for them and for their relatives. Nobody knows what happens to them."
As for what happened to the Korean-Chinese guide, reports vary. He was initially reported to have been picked up by the North Koreans, then to have been held in China. He is now believed to be in Pyongyang .
One who should know more is Current TV cameraman Mitch Koss, who escaped when Ling and Lee were picked up. He left China after having been held by Chinese police but has avoided publicity amid efforts to get North Korea to release the two.
However they were captured, analysts say North Korean authorities will see a chance for advantage in a high-stakes diplomatic game and also for revenge for the National Geographic documentary.
"These two young ladies will be thrown into the bargain to see if they can extract some more," says Peters. "That's standard operating procedure for the North Koreans, to milk it for all they can. They recognize these girls as tools in the bargaining."
All that's to be expected, say activists here, from a system that Lisa Ling describes as "completely controlled by Kim Jong Il," where "finally it hit me – there may not be a difference between true belief and true fear." The question Peters and Kim ask is whether that's also "hit" Laura Ling and Euna Lee as they languish under guard, and interrogation, in a guest house near Pyongyang.