Guilty as charged: North Korea’s conviction of US journalists Ling and Lee

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Guilty as charged: North Korea’s conviction of US journalists Ling and Lee.

By Stephen Gowans


Few men are more viciously vilified in the West than Kim Il Jong, North Korea’s leader, but his country and persona, despite the corporate media’s obsessive coverage, remain an enigma to the average media consumer.

There are probably four reasons why Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the US journalists arrested, convicted and jailed by north Korean authorities, received harsh sentences: They entered north Korea illegally, and not inadvertently and innocently as US officials and the Ling and Lee families maintain; they intended to produce video footage that would add to the Western campaign of demonizing north Korea; Pyongyang wants to deter others from sneaking across its borders and a harsh sentence was seen as a way of delivering a warning; Ling and Lee were working with a right-wing evangelist who is trying to destabilize north Korea. It didn’t help, either, that the pair snuck across the Chinese-DPRK border at a time of high tension between Washington and Pyongyang.

Ling and Lee were arrested on March 17, after setting off from Tuman, a town in northeast China near the Chinese-DPRK border. [1] They were on assignment for Current TV, a cable and Internet TV company founded by former US vice-president Al Gore and businessman Joel Hyatt. Ling, a Chinese-American, is a correspondent, while Lee, a Korean-American, is a film editor. Ling is also vice president of Current’s Vanguard journalism department. Her more widely known older sister, Lisa, is also a TV correspondent, who was co-host of ABC’s The View, host of National Geographic Explorer, and a correspondent for The Oprah Winfrey Show and CNN. [2]

Sometime that morning Ling, Lee, their cameraman, Mitch Koss, along with their Chinese guide, crossed the Tuman river, which forms one-third of north Korea’s border with China, into north Korea. The river is about 20 to 30 yards wide, [3] and on the north Korean side, there are guard posts every couple of hundred yards. [4] The river bed is shallow and would have been frozen that morning. [5]

US officials refer to Lee and Ling as “inadvertently” crossing the north Korea border. Their families talk of the pair “wandering” across the border, as if it were all quite accidental and innocent. [6] And US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dismisses the charges against the pair as “baseless.” [7] But there are a few reasons to believe that Lee and Ling knew exactly where the border was and deliberately crossed it.

South Korea North Korea Journalists Held

A South Korean man watches a TV broadcasting news about two American journalists detained in North Korea at the Seoul Railway Station, in South Korea, Monday, June 8, 2009. North Korea’s top court convicted the journalists and sentenced them to 12 years in a prison Monday, intensifying the reclusive nation’s confrontation with the United States. But the question remains: is the pair as innocent as it’s been portrayed on American screens?

First, Ling had a model. Three years earlier, her sister, Lisa, had snuck across the Chinese border into north Korea to secretly film a documentary for National Geographic. Unlike her younger sister, she didn’t get caught. [8]

Second, it’s difficult to stumble across a border, when the border is a river, and there are guard posts every couple of hundreds yards on the opposite shore. To believe Ling and Lee innocently wandered across the border is a bit like believing Mexicans inadvertently wander across the Rio Grande into the United States.

Third, Chun Ki-won, a south Korean evangelist who helped arrange the journalists’ trip (and about whom more later) suggested they may have become too ambitious, hazarding a trip across the border, rather than staying on the Chinese side. [9]

Fourth, and most damaging to the notion that the border crossing was accidental and innocent, Lee, Ling and Koss were accompanied by an ethnic Korean Chinese guide. [10] Any guide worth his salt would have been familiar with the terrain and know exactly where the border is.

Moreover, there’s reason to believe the guide was hired precisely to help the three journalists sneak into north Korea. Chun operates an “underground railroad” that smuggles people in and out of north Korea. [11] Since he helped arrange the trip, it’s likely he selected the guide. The guide may have been selected because he had experience in unauthorized border crossings.

Fifth, on June 16, the north Korea official news agency, KCNA, said north Korean officials had confiscated videotape in which someone (presumably Ling) could be heard saying “We have just entered north Korean territory without permission.” [12]

One doesn’t set off with a guide and cross a river that acts as border without knowing precisely what one is doing. The idea that Ling and Lee innocently stumbled into north Korea is implausible.

Here’s what seems to have happened next. The journalists and their guide were discovered by north Korean border guards. When the four failed to produce documentation authorizing their presence on north Korean soil, the guards tried to arrest them. Koss and the guide fled, crossing the Tuman back into China. As Koss stepped onto Chinese soil, he was arrested by Chinese border guards, and detained for two days, before being released. [13]

Koss knows exactly what happened that morning, but has provided no account I can find. Indeed, it is rarely mentioned in Western press reports that Ling and Lee had company on their trip, and that a third American journalist, Koss, escaped. One would think there would be an enormous interest in his story. Instead, silence.

Here’s what seems to have happened next. The journalists and their guide were discovered by north Korean border guards. When the four failed to produce documentation authorizing their presence on north Korean soil, the guards tried to arrest them. Koss and the guide fled, crossing the Tuman back into China. As Koss stepped onto Chinese soil, he was arrested by Chinese border guards, and detained for two days, before being released. [13] Koss knows exactly what happened that morning, but has provided no account I can find. Indeed, it is rarely mentioned in Western press reports that Ling and Lee had company on their trip, and that a third American journalist, Koss, escaped. One would think there would be an enormous interest in his story. Instead, silence.

So, what of Chun Ki-won? Chun is founder of an organization named Durihana. Durihana means “one from two”, a reference to the organization’s goal of building one Korea from its current two parts, north and south. But Chun’s idea of unification is hardly one north Koreans would endorse. What he means by unification is annexation – specifically, a Christian (and Buddhist) south absorbing a godless north. [14]


North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inspecting the command of the 7th Infantry Division of the North Korean Peoples Army

Chun aims to Christianize north Korea. He works to achieve this by smuggling economic migrants out of north Korea, converting them to Christianity, and sending them back to convert others. The goal: to bring down the north Korean government from inside, so the gospel of Christ can be spread throughout the length and breadth of the Korean peninsula. [15]

National Geographic described Chun as belonging “to a diverse group of activists, humanitarians, traffickers and fellow missionaries who operate an Asian underground railway. Some hope to precipitate the collapse of North Korea; others want to convert North Koreans to Christianity.” [16] Chun, it seems, wants to do both. We can be sure that anyone associated with him – including US journalists on a mission to produce a documentary whose content would almost certainly have been unfriendly to north Korea – are likely to be regarded with intense hostility and suspicion by Pyongyang.

Ling and Lee, then, had three strikes against them.

1. They entered north Korea illegally.
2. They were on a mission that could only be regarded by Pyongyang as hostile, for their documentary, had it been completed, would inevitably have demonized north Korea.
3. They were aided by an anti-DPRK evangelist whose aim is to bring down the north Korean government by training and deploying an evangelical Christian fifth column.

For these reasons Ling and Lee were convicted of illegal entry and committing a hostile act. They were sentenced to 12 years hard labor. [17]

The US media, US state officials and ordinary US citizens have reacted to the arrest, conviction and sentencing of the two journalists with outrage. This is partly due to the State Department and US media portraying Ling and Lee as innocents who either mistakenly stumbled across the border or were abducted on Chinese soil by north Korean border guards. Acknowledging that the pair deliberately crossed the border illegally might reduce the outpouring of sympathy.

The arrest, conviction and sentencing of Ling and Lee have played into the hands of propagandists who cite the event as an example of north Korea’s disdain for press freedom. This is partly a red herring. Part of their sentence was related to their unlawful intrusion into north Korea. This has nothing whatever to do with press freedom. Press freedom does not give journalists carte blanche to cross international borders without authorization.

The other part of their sentence relates to a hostile act. This is closer to the idea of repressing press freedom, for it appears the hostile act the pair was convicted of pertains to the collection of documentary footage, while on north Korean soil, that would be used to vilify the country. Demonization is standard operating procedure for Western journalists covering north Korea. What Western press report on north Korea hasn’t begun with the assumption the country is belligerent, provocative, mismanaged, and repressive? While vilifying north Korea may be standard operating procedure, this doesn’t make it acceptable or any less intolerable to north Koreans. Vilification provides Western ruling class forces with openings to mobilize public opinion at home to justify economic warfare against, and military confrontation with, north Korea. While we may think of the words and ideas journalists wield as innocuous, their words and ideas have very real – and potentially devastating – consequences for the lives, safety, and well-being of north Koreans.

Denunciations of north Korea by US sources for arresting, trying and jailing the journalists are hypocritical. While it appears otherwise on the surface, Washington’s tolerance of press freedom is no greater than that of Pyongyang. Both countries deny advocacy rights to hostile media. North Korea punishes journalists whose intentions are to smear its reputation. For its part, the United States denies press freedom to organizations that may, through their control of mass media, mobilize people against what Washington deems to be its interests. For example, Washington bans the Hezbollah TV station, Al Manar, on the ground that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization.[18] Let’s suppose it is. Is there a reason why a terrorist organization (and I don’t accept the designation) should be denied press freedom? The answer, from Washington’s point of view, is yes. Press freedom should only be extended to those whose advocacy is within what Washington defines as acceptable bounds. Hezbollah is considered out of bounds because it advocates the use of violence against a US ally (Israel) to achieve a political goal (self-defense) deemed by Washington to be hostile to its interests. Likewise, Pyongyang takes a dim view of press freedom used to advocate positions deemed hostile to its interests. The critical question is not whether press freedom is an absolute value to be fought for, but whose interests are at stake when press freedoms are abridged? Press freedoms are abridged in Western countries when imperialist or capitalist interests are seriously threatened; in anti-imperialist countries, when values of sovereignty are threatened. Since anti-imperialist countries are under constant threat, the need to abridge press freedom is unremitting. Since serious threats to imperialist countries are weaker and only occasional, press freedom in the West, and advocacy rights generally, are abridged less often.

Shouldn’t ideas rise and fall on their own intrinsic merit? If ideas rose and fell on their own intrinsic merits, perhaps, yes. But they don’t. Ideas rise and fall on more than intrinsic merit alone. They also rise and fall depending on how persuasively they’re communicated, and, importantly, how loudly, how often and how widely. It’s easy to accept a communist or anti-capitalist press, if it is small, under-funded, and marginal. The ideas it communicates, no matter their merit, will pose little threat, and will be overwhelmed by a cascade of competing ideas that are so ubiquitous they seem to constitute the common sense. What’s more, the very fact a communist press exists can be pointed to as evidence a society is free and open. And the notion that ideas rise and fall on their own merit can be invoked to explain why the communist press is marginal and why its ideas are not widely embraced. Press freedom, then, is an easy concept to accept, if you own the only truly visible, ubiquitous, press, and competing presses are small, under-funded and marginal.

Another question is whether the intrinsic merits of an idea are universal, or only particular to a specific group. Free trade may have intrinsic merit to the owners of an industrialized country, but not to the residents of an underdeveloped country. Slavery has intrinsic merit to slave-owners, but not to slaves. Occupying Iraq militarily has merit to decision-makers in Washington, but not to Iraqis on the ground. There are few ideas that have an intrinsic merit for all people at all times. Slavery as an idea was dominant in slave-owning societies, both because it had intrinsic merit (for slave-owners) and also because slave-owners had the means to propagate and justify the idea. Slavery has no legitimacy in a capitalist society because it has no intrinsic merits to the capitalist class, and because the capitalist class has the means to propagate and justify competing ideas until they achieve the status of common sense.

What’s more, there are abridgements of advocacy rights that most everyone accepts as desirable. Many countries prohibit advocacy of Nazism and hate-speech. Would we accept advocacy of slavery, the legal distribution of child pornography, or the hunting of racial minorities for sport? Some might, if they could be assured the advocates of these ideas would be marginalized by lack of access to platforms to mobilize support for their ideas on a mass scale. It’s doubtful, however, that their commitment to advocacy rights in the absolute would stand the test of these vile views being broadcast widely. Commitment to advocacy rights in the absolute is, except in the case of a tiny group of rights fanatics, conditional on the exercise of these rights making no meaningful challenge to one’s cherished views.

It’s instructive to consider the consequences of absolute press freedom being achieved at a time when titanic corporations in imperialist countries control vast media monopolies. These media reach far and wide, penetrating even those countries in which working class or national liberation forces (or both) have control of the state. On a world scale, in these times, absolute press freedom offers imperialism a means to perpetuate its domination by controlling most of the levers by which public opinion and people’s perceptions and values are shaped. What hope have anti-imperialist countries to survive, if the vile ideas the imperialist mass media propagate are given free rein?

The parallel is free trade. Free trade benefits dominant industrial powers, which have, as a consequence, always favored free trade as a universal principle (until they lose their dominance.) Britain, once the workshop of the world, promoted free trade as an absolute, until its industrial monopoly was eclipsed by the United States, Germany and Japan. These countries rejected free trade as inimical to their own development. They used state ownership, tariffs, subsidies, and other forms of preferential treatment of domestic industry, to develop industrially. Had they accepted Britain’s favored principle of free trade, their development would have stalled and Britain would have continued in its dominant position. Once it lost its status as workshop of the world, Britain rejected free trade and embraced imperial tariffs.

In the same way, imperialism promotes advocacy rights as an absolute. Because capitalist forces in the imperialist countries control the bulk of the world’s mass media, and therefore are able to shape public opinion, perceptions and values on a world scale, they are generally in favour of a free press. A free press means their version of reality holds sway. It is only when opposing forces begin to challenge their monopoly by developing their own mass media that the principle of advocacy rights as an absolute is abandoned. Just as the United States, Germany and Japan challenged Britain’s industrial monopoly by rejecting free trade as a universal principle, so must anti-imperialist and working class forces challenge capitalist and imperialist domination by disrupting advocacy of reactionary positions.

There are other limits on press freedom in the United States. Al Jazeera’s English-language broadcasting can be seen in over 100 countries, but the network faces a virtual ban in the United States, where it is only available from cable providers in Burlington, Vermont, Toledo, Ohio, and Washington. D.C. [19]

In Canada, the British politician George Galloway, who is an effective and passionate advocate of the rights of Palestinians, was denied entry to the country in order to disrupt a planned speaking tour. Canadian officials feared Galloway would mobilize support for Palestinians and against a Canadian ally, Israel. While the ban had little practical effect, since Galloway was able to speak to Canadian audiences through remote broadcasts, this demonstrates that Canada is prepared to limit advocacy rights when faced with very minor challenges to the dominant ideology. How much damage could Galloway, alone, do to the monolithic depiction of Israel as a tiny but plucky country besieged by anti-Jewish Arabs bent on carrying out the Final Solution? By contrast, such countries as Cuba, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and north Korea are bombarded daily with persuasive communications from Western media challenging these countries’ anti-imperialist direction. The provocations they face are a hundred-fold greater than the provocations the dominant class in Western societies face, and yet Western governments are quick to impose limits on advocacy rights, while at the same time condemning anti-imperialist countries for taking defensive measures against bombardment by pro-imperialist propaganda.

The Pentagon also prohibits press freedom by barring the media from covering the return to the United States of soldiers killed overseas. [20] The purpose is plain: to keep US citizens acquiescent so they don’t press more vigorously for a meaningful withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as the punishment meted out to Ling and Lee reflects Pyongyang’s political interests, Washington and other Western countries restrict press freedom and advocacy rights for their own political purposes.

In Iraq, the US military has detained dozens of journalists since 2001. While Ling and Lee faced formal charges and were afforded a trial, the journalists the US military lock up are held without charge and denied access to the courts. [21] Bilal Hussein, an Associated Press photographer, who won a 2005 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography, was imprisoned by the US military for over two years without charge or trial. [22] While rallies have been held in support of Ling and Lee, few US citizens are aware of the Iraqi journalists held by the US military.

While Washington is prepared to limit advocacy rights and press freedoms that provide openings to mobilize people against capitalist or imperialist interests, it’s equally prepared to declare advocacy rights to be sacrosanct when efforts are made to impose limits on advocacy of reactionary positions. For example, in November 2008, a resolution sponsored by Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Sudan and three other countries was put before the United Nations General Assembly. The resolution sought a ban on the glorification of Nazism and the description of Nazi collaborators as national liberation forces. The United States voted against the resolution, citing the need to uphold advocacy rights. A US official explained that “in a free society hateful ideas fail on account of their own intrinsic lack of merit,” and that is was therefore unnecessary – and an affront to the idea of free speech — to impose a ban. [23] Yet the United States has officially banned Al Manar, virtually bans Al Jazeera, and won’t allow the media to cover the return of fallen soldiers to the United States.

Washington’s client regime on the Korean peninsula, the ROK, imposes even stricter limits on freedom of expression. Citing threats to south Korea’s national security, the military bans all “pro-North Korea, antigovernment, anti-American and anticapitalism works” from its barracks, including books by Noam Chomsky. [24] For years, photos of north Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, were cut out of the international edition of Time Magazine by south Korean censors. And south Korea’s notorious national security law criminalizes communism and recognition of north Korea. While it is obligatory for Western journalists to denigrate north Korea’s human rights record in every report they file, rarely, if ever, is south Korea’s severe curtailment of advocacy rights for leftist political forces ever mentioned. In the world of Western journalism, the denial of rights to communists and militant anti-imperialists is glossed over, even accepted as desirable. It is only the denial of rights to pro-imperialist and pro-capitalist forces that is considered intolerable and worthy of mention.

Whether one ought to be for or against the arrest, convictions and imprisonment of Ling and Lee depends on answers to the following questions:

Did they deliberately enter north Korea without authorization, thereby knowingly committing a crime? The weight of evidence says they did.

Were they aware of the risk they were taking when they intruded upon north Korean territory with intentions the north Korean government could only regard as unfriendly — and at a time of high tension between their country and the DPRK? Ling and Lee are veteran journalists, not hapless tourists with a shaky grasp of public affairs. It’s fairly certain they were aware of the risks they were taking, but took them anyway, because risk-takers who defy the odds to bring back the story are highly rewarded in Western journalism. Ling’s older sister, Lisa, took a similar risk three years earlier. The risk paid off, and helped build her reputation.

Are Ling and Lee politically neutral? No journalist, no matter how hard she strives to be impartial, is free from class or national allegiances. As journalists employed by capitalists based in the dominant imperialist power, it is inevitable their reporting on north Korea would have had a decidedly pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist tilt, at odds with north Korea’s interests. Ling and Lee are every bit as much warriors in the struggle between Washington and Pyongyang over the question of whether the whole of the Korean peninsula will be dominated by US geopolitical interests as US military and intelligence personnel and Washington decision-makers are. Their battlefield, while it may not be one of missiles and artillery, is people’s minds, and is every bit as important. Ling and Lee are not innocent, politically neutrally journalists, who accidentally stumbled across the north Korean border. They are promoters of an imperialist ideology who almost certainly intruded illegally on north Korea with unfriendly intentions. The evidence suggests they are guilty as charged.

STEPHEN GOWANS writes frequently on the shenanigans of the imperial press and politicos.

1. Choe Sang-Hun, “N. Korea says it is holding reporters,” New York Times, March 22, 2009; “Detailed report on truth about crimes committed by American journalists,” KCNA, June 16, 2009.
2. Raja Abdulrahim and Jessica Garrison, “Friends speak up for LA journalists held by N Korea,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2009.
3. Choe Sang-Hun, “N. Korea says it is holding reporters,” New York Times, March 22, 2009.
4. Tom O’Neil, “Escape from North Korea,” National Geographic, February, 2009.
5. Choe Sang-Hun, “N. Korea says it is holding reporters,” New York Times, March 22, 2009.
6. David E. Sanger and Choe Sang Hun, “US protests N Korea’s treatment of journalists,” New York Times, June 9, 2009.
7. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea says journalists admitted crimes,” New York Times, June 17, 2009.
8. Raja Abdulrahim and Jessica Garrison, “Friends speak up for LA journalists held by N Korea,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 2009; Robert Mackey, “Vigils held for American reporters on trial in North Korea,” New York Times, June 3, 2009.
9. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea said to detain US reporters,” New York Times, March 20, 2009.
10. Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea said to detain US reporters,” New York Times, March 20, 2009; Choe Sang-Hun, “N. Korea says it is holding reporters,” New York Times, March 22, 2009.
11. Tom O’Neil, “Escape from North Korea,” National Geographic, February, 2009.
12. Blaine Harden, “North Korea says two convicted journalists admitted ‘criminal acts’”, The Washington Post, June 17, 2009.
13. Choe Sang-Hun, “N. Korea says it is holding reporters,” New York Times, March 22, 2009; Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for Al Gore’s Current, suspected spies,” AP, May 24, 2009; IFEX Alert, March 29, 2009.
14. PBS News Hour, “Evangelical movement spreads throughout South Korea,” February 28, 2007; Interview with Chun Ki-won,
15. Norimitsu Onishi, “Letter from South Korea: Campaign for human rights and fishing for souls,” New York Times, February 24, 2006.
16. Tom O’Neil, “Escape from North Korea,” National Geographic, February, 2009.
17. “Detailed report on truth about crimes committed by American journalists,” KCNA, June 16, 2009.
18. Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2008.
19. “Few in US see Jazeera’s coverage of Gaza war,” New York Times, January 12, 2009.
20. Liz Sly, “US holds journalist in Iraq without charge,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2009.
21. Ibid.
22. AP, August 23, 2008.
23. US Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of the Spokesman, Questions taken from the February 25, 2009 daily press briefing.
24. Choe Sang-Hun, “Textbooks on Past Offend South Korea’s Conservatives,” New York Times, November 18, 2008.

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