Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Laura Ling and Euna Lee tell their story… or part of it
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Laura Ling and Euna Lee tell their story… or part of it

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two US journalists who were captured, put on trial and convicted of trespassing and “hostile acts” by the government of North Korea, have written part of their story — a lot is still too traumatic to tell. The article appeared last night on both the LA Times (interestingly, as an “Opinion” piece) and on the website of their employer, Current TV.

The point of the public writing is to re-focus the narrative from their experience being captured (though they cover that as well) but on the story they were chasing in the first place when they were captured: The desperate plight of refugees escaping North Korea into China.

We had traveled to the area to document a grim story of human trafficking for Current TV. During the previous week, we had met and interviewed several North Korean defectors, 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. Now our guide, a Korean Chinese man who often worked for foreign journalists, had brought us to the Tumen River to document a well-used trafficking route and chronicle how the smuggling operations worked.

Their investigation took them into North Korea, but only for a very short time — less than a minute, they say — but the consequences were dire, and they wonder if they’d been set up by an informant.

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. He pointed out a small village in the distance where he told us that North Koreans waited in safe houses to be smuggled into China via a well-established network that has escorted tens of thousands across the porous border.

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.

The two relate how they worked to protect the identity of sources who helped them:

In the early days of our confinement, before we were taken to Pyongyang, we were left for a very brief time with our belongings. With guards right outside the room, we furtively destroyed evidence in our possession by swallowing notes and damaging videotapes. During rigorous, daily interrogation sessions, we took care to protect our sources and interview subjects. We were also extremely careful not to reveal the names of our Chinese and Korean contacts…

It’s good to hear from the two of them, and this article sets the stage — and our curiosity — to hear more. I’m sure it will all be forthcoming in one form or another.

It’s bound to be a gripping story.