American reporters Euna Lee and Laura Ling recently gave their first statement on their employer Current TV’s website, describing their capture in North Korea. In their detailed account, the women admit that they did in fact cross border, though for only a brief moment, before turning back.
“When we set out, we had no intention of leaving China, but when our guide beckoned for us to follow him beyond the middle of the river, we did, eventually arriving at the riverbank on the North Korean side… Feeling nervous about where we were, we quickly turned back toward China. Midway across the ice, we heard yelling. We looked back and saw two North Korean soldiers with rifles running toward us. Instinctively, we ran.
“We were firmly back inside China when the soldiers apprehended us. Producer Mitch Koss and our guide were both able to outrun the border guards. We were not. We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil, but we were no match for the determined soldiers. They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained. Over the next 140 days, we were moved to Pyongyang, isolated from one another, repeatedly interrogated and eventually put on trial and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.”
Their statement shows the many gray areas behind their detainment. Technically, they did cross the North Korean border, which some have used to justify their captivity. On the other hand, it was unintentional and they only crossed the border for a few moments — according to their statement, they “didn’t spend more than a minute on North Korean soil before turning back” — making their original sentence of 12 years of hard labor seem harsh and completely unjustified.
Most importantly, their statement brings the focus back to the main reason for their journey to the China- North Korea border — the grim story of human trafficking for North Korean defectors — which has unfortunately been overshadowed by news of their detainment.
As Euna and Laura describe, they met with several defectors, who were “women who had fled poverty and repression in their homeland, only to find themselves living in a bleak limbo in China. Some had, out of desperation, found work in the online sex industry; others had been forced into arranged marriages.”
The main concern and outrage over the reporters stems from the fact that their detainment may have exposed the identities and locations of North Korean defectors, endangering the many activists and refugees trying to escape North Korea.
They offered their apologies, stating “We regret if any of our actions, including the high-profile nature of our confinement, has led to increased scrutiny of activists and North Koreans living along the border.”
Though their detainment is controversial, this statement clarified the honest intentions of Euna and Laura, who wanted nothing other than to raise awareness about the desperate plight of North Korean defectors. As they explain,
“Our motivations for covering this story were many. First and foremost, we believe that journalists have a responsibility to shine light in dark places, to give voice to those who are too often silenced and ignored. One of us, Euna, is a devout Christian whose faith infused her interest in the story. The other, Laura, has reported on the exploitation of women around the world for years. We wanted to raise awareness about the harsh reality facing these North Korean defectors who, because of their illegal status in China, live in terror of being sent back to their homeland.”
Photo of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, courtesy of AFP