March 20, 2009

Did North Korea Just Kidnap Two American Journalists?

The Associated Press reports that North Korea “detained” two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee from Al Gore’s Current TV, for filming the border region.

It looks, however, like the reporters were “detained” for shooting film of North Korea from the Chinese side of the border. They were in China interviewing refugees who fled North Korea. North Korean military and police officers don’t have jurisdiction in China. If they crossed the border and grabbed two American journalists, those journalists weren’t “detained.” They were kidnapped.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at March 20, 2009 12:27 AM

That just about sums up what is being reported here as well; that the Border Guards crossed over to take them into detention.

Given the nature of the border and the North Korean history of such cross-overs, it is also not a terribly big surprise.

Going to be tough to do much about it, though.

Posted by: LDG Author Profile Page at March 20, 2009 6:20 AM

Here's an alternative English-language report on the incident from DPA, citing one source (Yonhap) as stating the reporters crossed over the border. CAVEAT: no other South Korean or Japanese media source has made that claim.,north-korea-detains-two-us-journalists--2nd-update.html

Posted by: LDG Author Profile Page at March 20, 2009 6:38 AM


Two persons who thought their credentials afforded them security were given a reality check. Forces of the most abusive country in Asia deprived them of their liberty while they were standing on the soil of the country that is home to Tienanmen Square.

The Journalists were playing chicken. They got hit. Today the sun came up in the east, film at eleven.

You and I got away with standing on the border of Iran because we had the Peshmerga backing our play, and because the Mullahs don't have their skin in keeping that border sacred. North Korea is hanging on by its fingernails right now and part of what is keeping it together is the myth that they have absolute control of physical security.

Never corner a coward, they'll kill you. Don't screw with the North Koreans over the only thing that's keeping their country in existence. Once an escape is shown, everybody will leave North Korea. The journalists openly attacked, as far as the North Koreans and the Chinese are concerned.

Why did the Chinese not protect the two chuckleheads who were engaged in openly attacking North Korea? Because the border guards on the China side know exactly what a mess the deflation of North Korea is going to be. That mess is going to happen on dirt they're supposed to be in charge of.

Every time you've screwed around on dangerous borders, you've taken the precaution of having friends at least one side. You've never gone up to a border after making exactly certain that all parties know your intention is to kick them in the nuts. That's why you've never gotten jugged.

Posted by: Patrick S Lasswell Author Profile Page at March 20, 2009 8:36 AM

Patrick, I pretty much agree with you.

Not sure why reporters/journalists/notetakers think they are, or should be, a "Protected" species.

It is not like they are a "Fair Witness" from one of Heinlein's novels. Where, at least in his novels, they were, you know, "Fair" and "Objective".

My opinion, few reporters/journalists/notetakers are neutral, fair, objective or balanced.


Posted by: rsnyder Author Profile Page at March 20, 2009 10:47 AM

rsnyder: My opinion, few reporters/journalists/notetakers are neutral, fair, objective or balanced.

That's true, but irrelevent in this case. Think about the most objective and fair journalist you know of in the world. Do you think North Korea would have given that person a break? I don't. What do you think "fair" and "objective" mean to the government of North Korea?

When was the last time North Korea kidnapped Americans for any reason? Has anything like this happened since the armistice ended hostilities on the penninsula? This is a serious incident.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at March 20, 2009 10:57 AM

The last time that the Norks seized US citizens that comes to mind is the seizing of the USS Pueblo back in '68. North Korea also, of course, had a known history of kidnapping Japanese citizens for a while.

Posted by: junior Author Profile Page at March 20, 2009 11:25 AM

I figure China's prepared to keep NK on JUST enough of a leash with food and fuel to prevent a wave of starving, sick, low skilled/unskilled non-chinese speaking refugees from flooding across; whatEVER it takes to keep the problem Over There.

NK? Testing the rookie in Washington? Why not; failing to live up to previous "agreements" has only led to more carrots. Seeing what Israel is apparently willing to let loose to retrieve a single captive probably didn't escape their attention either.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at March 20, 2009 4:37 PM

MJT, serious to whom? Other than the reporters of course.

No one knows all the facts, though this article in the Asia Times Online seems representative of what is known:

NK is notorious for taking people into custody (or killing), whether those persons are on NK land or just too close to it. Appears that Ling and Lee may have been in NK, and certainly seems that they were warned NOT to get close to NK border. NOT as is in it would be really, really stupid to do so.

The USS Pueblo is probably the most famous incident against Americans, and it took almost a year for the NK's to release them.

Did Ling and Lee know how stupid they were being and what they were risking? I rather think so.

Serious incident? Again, why is this oh so serious? And, other than the traditional diplomatic wrangling, what exactly can be done to NK to force them to give up the two idiots? (and I am not forgetting the driver, though that is China's problem).

I am more concerned about NK having nukes, or achieving a certain capability on missile delivery, than I am about two people who should have known better than what they, to their almost certain regret, did.

NK -what country in the world should a person on the ground, close to the border, not play chicken with? I cannot think of a worse one. NK is probably the most backward, disengaged, least concerned with PR country on the planet.

Over the decades I have heard many stories from G.I.'s that have served in NK about what the NK's do. The stories have been consistent and while they usually involve NK's, SK's, Chinese and Japanese, sometimes Americans apparently have been involved.

China is virtually powerless to make NK do something that NK doesn't want to do. America, and most assuredly under President Erkle, is not going to be taken very seriously by NK about any threats we make.

Do you think that in over fifty years of our G.I.'s being on the border that the N.K.'s have not killed or taken some prisoners? These type of events happened on the East/West Germany border; and the NK's are a hell of a lot less predictable or responsible that East Germany(USSR) was.

Either Lee and Ling will be released, or they will not. They may be tortured or killed, or they will not. Would be wise for future snoopers (private or government sponsored) to be a bit more cautious around NK territory. Especially if they are, or appear to be, of Oriental heritage.

Not to be entirely dismissive about Lee and Ling's dilemma, but yeah, I guess I am not especially concerned. Safe to say that I will not be calling my Senator's or Congressman about this issue.

Posted by: rsnyder Author Profile Page at March 20, 2009 5:32 PM

Human Tragedy by Night

These satellite shots are dated now, but it's hard to imagine conditions have improved, and easy to guess who's 'hood gets the illumination north of the 38th parallel:

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at March 20, 2009 8:47 PM

Kyoudou now has the report from KCNA (official N.K. propaganda outlet) confirming the detention and saying the matter is "being investigated".

Their version, of course, is that the reporters were arrested inside N.K.

Posted by: LDG Author Profile Page at March 21, 2009 3:44 AM

Until just recently, I didn't get how there could've been confusion over where the border is; I mean the border is the Tumen River itself, right? The journalists had to have been on one side or the other.
Well, yes and no. The river is still frozen (d'oh!)
The journalists were out on the ice. Where's the border on a frozen river? down the center? where's that? It's clear why there's confusion. North Korea can make a sort of case that the Americans infringed on their territory. They are a loathsome regime, but they may have to be placated a bit on this oen.

Posted by: miguelj Author Profile Page at March 21, 2009 10:25 AM

The North Koreans will probably release them, after deleting everything even remotely related to North Korea in their laptop, cameras, or written materials.

Posted by: lee Author Profile Page at March 21, 2009 1:30 PM

Regarding "deleting everything..." -- that might not be possible. (1) the cameraman in the incident evaded N.K. capture; and (2) while he and the driver(?) were picked up by the PRChinese and detained, how long he had to run is unknown at this time.

Posted by: LDG Author Profile Page at March 21, 2009 11:55 PM

They could be in deep Kimche.......I was in the military in Korea when KJ ILL came to power......We were told that he was a sexual psychopath with the worlds largest collection of SM porm.....We were also told that he had his intel service kidnap foreigners, some of whom were attractive women whom he tortured to death in S&M rituals.....
His father, the old style Stalinist who"s name escapes me,allegedly had serious misgivings about allowing KJ ILL to succeed him...So KJ ILL and his cohorts killed him.....
So we have a psychopath with nukes & the worlds 7th? largest army about to have a showdown with Japan over a missile launch next month......Should be interesting.....

Posted by: WorkinStiff Author Profile Page at March 22, 2009 7:15 PM

A little more follow-up on the "missing" cameraman, from the AP.

The PRC now says Mitch Koss, the cameraman, is no longer in China. No other details of his circumstances were provided.

Other details of the two detained in North Korea, and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing's "no comment", are in the article.

Hope that helps.

Posted by: LDG Author Profile Page at March 24, 2009 2:36 AM

On NK wackadoo precedent: I thought I remembered this one...

Axe Murder Incident
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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The tree that was the object of the 1976 Axe Murder Incident (Photo 1984). Deliberately left standing after 'Operation Paul Bunyan', the stump was later replaced by a monument in 1987.

The Axe Murder Incident (Korean: 판문점 도끼 살인 사건) was the killing of two United States Army officers by North Korean soldiers on August 18, 1976 in the Joint Security Area (JSA) located in the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which forms the de facto border between North and South Korea. The killings and the response three days later (Operation Paul Bunyan) heightened tensions between North and South Korea as well as their respective allies, China and the United States.

The incident is also known as the Hatchet Incident and the Poplar Tree Incident because the object of the conflict was a poplar tree standing in the JSA.


Extrapolating from this and the ones I know, I wouldn't mess with Koreans generally - not in the sense that what I did, didn't matter. It seems they will, in fact, come and get you.

Do these girls come back? Not without help. And not, I would guess, without some mileage run up on their odometers. They're pretty, and they look young and healthy...which means they might last a while. So I guess "diplomacy" (LOL) has time to "work."

OTOH the State Department was not involved in Operation Paul Bunyan, to my recollection.

Posted by: Nichevo Author Profile Page at March 26, 2009 5:36 PM

From South Korea's Joongang Daily, it appears that the journos are in Pyongyang:

According to South Korean intelligence, Lee and Ling walked across the Tumen River, bordering China and North Korea, at 3 a.m. last Tuesday. The narrow river is a frequent escape route for refugees and the journalists wanted a closer look at North Korea.

Sources said the journalists first wanted to stay on the Chinese side, but then their journalistic urge for a scoop led them to chance a border crossing. As their Chinese guide lingered slightly behind, Lee and Ling were stopped by a North Korean soldier.

According to the sources, the North Korean soldier at first assumed the journalists were Koreans. But their passports and other ID cards revealed them to be American citizens. The capture of the Americans was immediately reported to the North’s Defense Security Command and to the Ninth Army Corps, which is in charge of North Hamgyong Province, where the Tumen River flows.

After being questioned at the security command, Lee and Ling were reportedly taken to Pyongyang last Wednesday. Each was put in a separate vehicle so that there would be no communication between them. According to South Korean sources, the journalists are being questioned at closed-off quarters under the auspices of the command near Pyongyang. One source said, “Our intelligence tells us that since this involved border security, the command wants to physically detain the journalists.” Another source said there is also a distinct possibility that once the current round of questioning is complete, the journalists will be handed over to the National Security Defense Agency, the North’s top intelligence unit.

The sources said U.S. officials were appreciative of South Korea’s quick effort and specific information. They also said Korea told the U.S. that the North is likely trying to get the journalists to admit to espionage at the border. According to the sources, given the North’s relentless style of questioning and investigation, Lee and Ling will have little choice but to reveal what they saw and heard.

When their capture first became known, the journalists were said to be on a trip to report on the plight of North Korean refugees, and their reports on the refugees or footage of North Korean territory could work against them.

The South Korean intelligence community believes the charges against the journalists will likely be espionage because they crossed the border. It’s a felony that could result in a minimum of 20 years in prison in North Korea.

One source said, “The North will film all of its questioning of the journalists and will prepare for negotiations with the United States.”

The source said the North could get the Americans to say they had spied on tape but will release them anyway, which would make the move seem like a goodwill gesture on the North’s part.

Another source said it’s unlikely the North will physically abuse the detained journalists.

The source said the North would want the Americans, once released, to go home and tell the press that, for all the questioning, they were otherwise given food and a place to stay. That, in turn, would paint a less hostile picture of the communist state.

Posted by: Zhang Fei Author Profile Page at March 28, 2009 11:21 AM

update from AFP

"NKorea to indict US journalists: state media

Mon Mar 30, 3:53 pm ET

SEOUL (AFP) – North Korea is preparing to indict two detained US journalists after it accused them of illegally entering the communist country, state media said early Tuesday.

"The illegal entry of US reporters into the DPRK and their suspected hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their statements," the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

The report said "a competent organ of the DPRK (North Korea)" had investigated the pair.

"The organ is carrying on its investigation and, at the same time, making a preparation for indicting them at a trial on the basis of the already confirmed suspicions," the report said.

The pair, Euna Lee, a Korean-American, and Laura Ling, a Chinese-American, who work for Current TV in California, would be allowed consular access and would be treated according to international law, it added.

They were detained before dawn on March 17 along the border with China.

The KCNA report did not specify what was meant by "hostile acts" and did not say when they might appear in court, but specialists in South Korea have said they could be tried for spying..."

Posted by: del Author Profile Page at March 30, 2009 4:16 PM
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