Laura Ling on the Today Show

I’m going to spend the next few days focusing most of my attention on the Cheonan incident and how we ought to respond to it, here are some links on the Ling sisters and their book promotion. You already know my ambivalence about this whole story, but to her credit, Laura Ling hasn’t forgotten why she went to the Tumen River to begin with, and I suppose more people will now hear that story on the Today Show than they might have on Current TV:

All of which makes any State Department apology to China about one U.S. state’s immigration policy all the more ridiculous, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.


  1. The caption says ‘ Ling sisters reliving Korean … ordeal’.

    Well, people, please don’t be fooled, they’re not reliving anything, they are here to SELL you their ordeal. They are not sitting on that couch because they want you to support the freedom of North Korea ; they are sitting on that bloody couch so that you’ll end up buying this stupid book of theirs.

    Laura for good measure tries to sound like a bit of a man, which is subconsciously designed so that folks take their story more seriously.

    The fact that some North Koreans may have died because of Lisa’s opportunistic actions is just too bad eh….but then again no one cares about that, because those North Koreans are very unlikely to review her silly book on Amazon.

  2. OP:

    All of which makes any State Department apology to China about one U.S. state’s immigration policy all the more ridiculous, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

    Unless Mr Posner said more than this, I don’t see how this, then the State Department apologizing to China over the Arizona law sounds like a mischaracterization:

    QUESTION: Did the recently passed Arizona immigration law come up? And, if so, did they bring it up or did you bring it up?

    ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We brought it up early and often. It was mentioned in the first session, and as a troubling trend in our society and an indication that we have to deal with issues of discrimination or potential discrimination, and that these are issues very much being debated in our own society.

    QUESTION: Did they bring it – did they discuss anything about their concerns about Chinese visiting in Arizona, any concerns raised –

    ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: No, that was not raised.

    QUESTION: Okay.


    QUESTION: Could you be more specific on your talks concerning Tibet and Xinjiang, and was the Dalai Lama raised?

    ASSISTANT SECRETARY POSNER: We raised – there were a range of issues raised about – in the context of our discussions of religious freedom, ability to practice freely and without constraint. And certainly we raised some specific cases from both of those regions.

    At any rate, back to the Ling Sisters’ media appearances, they are indeed fluff pieces (not their fault) designed to promote a book (a normal thing to do). I’m going to withhold judgement until I give the book a fair read.

    I think it’s interesting that The Today Show ticker reads that “Ling Sisters Relive Korean Imprisonment Ordeal.” For starters, it makes it sound like they were both in a Korean prison, and second, it would be oh-so-nice if, for a confused America that confuses even West Virginia and East Virginia, if they could clearly write North Korea when they’re talking about the Workers’ Paradise.

  3. “they are sitting on that bloody couch so that you’ll end up buying this stupid book of theirs”

    I thought the proceeds went to LINK?


  4. Theresa wrote:

    I thought the proceeds went to LINK?

    When Lisa Ling wrote me, she specifically said she is “donating [her] entire portion to LiNK, CPJ and RSF.” She did not say, however, whether Laura would be doing the same. I noted that as well in my response.

  5. First of all, the introduction is misleading when the Today show says that Current TV’s destination in China was the Tumen River. Their destination was the city of Yanji, where all of the interviews with defectors/refugees took place. Yanji is about an hour away from the Tumen River border area. The Tumen River was an extracurricular activity on the morning when they were supposed to go to another nearby province in China (Liaoning’s Dandong). The filming of the Tumen River could have been done with a simple car and driver along the Chinese shoreline if Laura and Mitch were only interested in obtaining a few minutes of footage showing the terrain. In fact we hear Lisa say how shocked she was that her sister actually set foot on the frozen river: “I thought how could that be; they were not supposed to go to North Korea.” Obviously Lisa is keenly aware of where the Tumen River is in relation to the original Current TV assignment’s itinerary. (Seoul-Yanji-Dandong)

    However Laura, Mitch, and Euna continued to use their so-called “fixer” (also known as ‘the guide’) because Laura believed he could arrange an interview with North Korean sentries. This is a fact according to her recent interview with NPR on May 19, 2010: “And so, in my mind, I thought he was trying to make a connection with some of the border guards that he knew.”

    “Hoo hoo”; we hear Laura say for the first time on the Today show as she attempts to recreate the hooting noises that the guide was using as he crossed the frozen Tumen River to North Korea.

    Her estimate of actual time on North Korea’s shore is now down to 45 seconds. I guess in previous interviews the “one minute” total was starting to sound too long.

    When asked about whether the hooting guide had led them across the river into a trap, Laura tells Today: “There was no real reason to suspect that we were set up.”

    Really? Laura gave a more detailed response about her misgivings to NPR: “Now previously, our guide had told us that he had connections in North Korea. Our guide was involved in smuggling goods himself. He said in the past that he had taken some media to actually converse with some of these border guards on the other side.”

    So, Laura Ling, you say today on Today that there was no real reason to suspect that you were set up by the guide. Allow Spelunker to enumerate them for you:

    1. “Hoo hoo.” Hooting noises? Are you kidding me? Boo hoo for crying out loud; the guide is giving some kind of signal to North Korea’s shore and you don’t suspect anything? Did you think he was trying to help you film a couple of mating owls?

    2. Connections in North Korea. Are you kidding me? You hired a guide who has connections in North Korea. That’s just brilliant! Imagine the cell phone call he must have made to his “connections”: “Yobosayo Pyongyang; you’re not gonna believe this but I got Lisa Ling’s sister, a Korean-American, and a producer from Vice President Al Gore’s media company right here and they would like to cross the Tumen River tomorrow morning at dawn!”

    3. Smuggler. Are you kidding me? Durihana’s top guide is a smuggler? Didn’t you read Lisa’s complimentary copy of the February 2009 issue of National Geographic in which Tom O’Neill said that Durihana’s top guide is a former drug smuggler?
    Are you essentially trying to tell us that you hired a smuggler to smuggle you into North Korea? I will bet you a foot massage at your Yanji hotel that it was the same guide.

    4. Press pass. Are you kidding me? Your guide claims he had taken some media to actually converse with border guards on the other side? You truly believe that?
    Why can’t I find any of those interviews on the Internet? Unless it was a Japanese crew in Dandong, this claim is totally suspicious and most likely false. Worst of all, if the decision you made was to follow the guide across the river in order to interview sentries, then WHY IN GOD’S NAME were you carrying videos and notes from your Yanji defector/refugee interviews?

    So there you have it folks; count ’em! 4 is not a lucky number in Chinese and there are four solid reasons to suspect that Laura Ling and her crew were set up for misfortune by the very suspicious guide.

  6. Even if Lisa is donating her ‘entire portion’ to LiNK, it would be incorrect to assume that therefore this ‘entire portion’ equates to 50%. In order to maintain their con, it can be reasonably argued, that this ‘portion’ is perhaps 15-20% at best, so that the sisters can feast on the remaining 80%.

  7. Now that’s rich – apologizing about Arizona’s strict enforcement of immigration laws to China, a country where Chinese urban residents without hukous are illegal immigrants with fewer rights than undocument US residents from other countries. I wonder what the Chinese government would have done if Hu Jintao were approached on the street in Shenzhen by a Uighur kid asking why his parents needed papers to enroll him in school. I shudder to imagine that answer to that hypothetical situation.

    I didn’t hear anything in the Ling interviews that I didn’t already know. I think I’ll give the media tour and the book a miss.

  8. I just read the Ling book and loved it. I couldn’t put it down. These two women could have chosen a different path or the one where people sit behind computers and complain about other people, but they are both out there reporting important stories. So what if they want to write a book about it, I happened to have really enjoyed it.

  9. I would urge people not to judge the book by the interviews. They are sketchy at best. Read the book, (borrow it if you refuse to by it). I found it very informative and enlighting, yet at times frustratingly short on details and explainations. The book should have been much longer. There are a few things that haven’t been given an adequate explaination, and, at least to me, the book raised some other questions.

    The major criticism of the whole escapade is that the whole trip to the river itself was not part of the original plan. After wrapping up all the work in Yanji, they decided they would go to the river to get shots. In addition to the things mentioned by Spelunker, the fixer also promised a shot at interviews with defectors just coming across the river. Remember, they had already been to the City of Tumen earlier. River shots could have been taken then. We also find out that sometime before they set out in the morning, Euna had been with the fixer taking night shots of the river. The bottom line is this, these shots were “icing on the cake shots” that were not part of the original story they were there to film. Even though Laura won’t pull the trigger on the guide, I believe they were set up, lured into a trap by a guide who dangled bait that this group fell for. I can’t say for certain that I wouldn’t have fallen for it as well. (Heck, I fell for the “interviews with Mitch Koss and Euna Lee” advertisment and watched that Current special.)

    The one thing the book does is depict the resturaunt scene of the decision to go to the river and the decision to follow the guide into North Korea as a collective “we”. I wish there was detail about the discussion that went on during these times. Who first suggested the idea? When the guide beckoned them into North Korea, didn’t someone say “should we go?” Who first suggested it was time to go back? Since we have only heard from one of the four, I am suspecting that the other three are not going to come forth with that information anytime soon.

    I believe it is evident, and I believe the participants know this too, that they let they “opportunities” presented by the guide override their prudence and good judgement to the detriment of themselves, their families, their country, and most important of all, the very people they were trying to help. Unintended consequences.

    Before this incident, what I knew about North Korea came from MASH and bad war movies. I have found a few Korean blogs I read regularly, and the charity LINK that I now donate too. It is a small thing compared to what the refugees have gone through. but every little can help.

  10. coty07 wrote:

    I would urge people not to judge the book by the interviews.

    I would agree with this statement. While the book interviews are there for the promotion of their own book, to a large extent their content is out of the hands of the Ling Sisters themselves and their aim is ratings, not fact-finding or truth-baring. If their full narrative is what you seek, somehow obtain a copy of the book.

  11. You know…even if their motives were wrong (I am not entirely convinced that they were)- they are still bringing attention to the North Korean crisis.

  12. It’s not just bad motives, Theresa. It’s the way they recklessly endangered other people’s lives that also has some people upset, and many people see that exacerbated particularly if they profit off it.

    I have backed down a bit since Lisa Ling told me she is giving up her entire portion to those aforementioned charities, though I’d like to see something from her sister as well. And when Euna Lee’s book comes out, I’d like to see the same.

    Yes, they are bringing attention to the North Korean crisis, but for a while there they brought the wrong kind of attention on some actual North Koreans.

  13. Theresa wrote

    You know…even if their motives were wrong (I am not entirely convinced that they were)- they are still bringing attention to the North Korean crisis.

    I believe their is a difference between their motives and their judgement. As reporters they are motivitated by at least two things, the story they are after, and, of course, a paycheck. But after three days of exhaustive work and “emotionally draining” interviews, as well as certain promises by the fixer, the group made a huge error in judgement. has linked to a February 9th, 2009 National Geographic story that I am sure most of the poster here have read, I had not seen it before. It is the same story that the Current crew was doing, with some of the same players from Durihana. Especially of note is the section called Field Notes. If you have not read it, I recommend doing so, to compare and contrast how both teams conducted themselves during their reporting.

  14. ” It’s the way they recklessly endangered other people’s lives that also has some people upset,”

    Can someone be specific about this? Do we have any proof?

  15. Theresa, here is the long-hand of what I wrote:

    I wrote that because I feel that your sister and her team’s “mistake” may have actually cost lives (more on that below), and I am certainly not alone in this opinion. Their foolishness in willfully crossing over into North Korea while carrying incriminating videotapes of the unobscured faces of the North Korean refugees hiding in China whom they interviewed, borders on the criminal. It boggles the mind that anyone would do such a thing. We can reasonably imagine (and I believe it has been reported) that the materials caught on the persons of your sister, Euna Lee, and Mitch Koss were used to track those refugees down and deport them back to North Korea, where they would be imprisoned, tortured, and then executed or left to die in the North Korean gulag.

    Here is where they admitted they had such things on them:

    After their arrest, they found themselves briefly left alone with their belongings, and “furtively destroyed evidence in our possession by swallowing notes and damaging videotapes”.

    This is only one of a number of such accusations against them, but it’s the one where they admit most directly that they screwed up.

  16. Grrr… they don’t “admit… that they screwed up,” they just provide direct evidence of the screw-up.

    Anyway, Spelunker wrote:

    Her estimate of actual time on North Korea’s shore is now down to 45 seconds. I guess in previous interviews the “one minute” total was starting to sound too long.

    It might be getting longer. In an earlier report, Lisa Ling recounted what her sister said, and it was then thirty seconds:

    “She did say that they touched North Korean territory very, very briefly,” Ms. Ling said of her sister, adding later, “She said that it was maybe 30 seconds, and everything just got sort of chaotic. It’s a very powerful story and she does want to share it.”

  17. Some human rights groups in South Korea are speaking up about Ling/Lee jeopardizing efforts to help NK refugees. The Catacombs is a weekly meeting of Christian missionaries and secular aid workers involved with China/North Korea border refugees, led by Tim Peters in Seoul. Among the items confiscated from Current TV’s crew were notebooks with phone numbers of refugees and aid workers that they had met in Yanji. Current TV tried to use South Korean missionaries such as Durihana’s Pastor Chun Ki-won as fixers but don’t fully realize the risk of putting refugees in danger. Peters says: “For journalists to parachute into that area and think that the North Korean refugees are going to be eager to talk is really a bit naive.” Peters infers that Current TV was not fully prepared for the depths that they had to deal with and that’s why he is extremely cautious when lending assistance to people who are not deeply familiar with the terrain and not familiar with the possible consequences “if things go south” in their investigations.

    Here’s more proof:

    There appears to be little doubt that the arrest of Ling, a Chinese-American, and the Seoul-born Lee, who moved to the US in 1995, has had severe consequences for North Korean refugees in hiding in China.

    “The Chinese police have started pursuing missionaries and NGO [nongovernmental organisation] activists helping refugees in China,” reported Lee Song-jin, a writer for the exile website Daily NK, in May.

    Want some more?

    Video footage shot by two TV journalists who were detained in North Korea after filming on the Chinese border was used by China to round up on North Korean refugees. China also deported one South Korean human rights activist who is seen in the footage and closed five orphanages that had protected North Korean children.

    The claims were made Thursday by Lee Chan-woo (71), a pastor with the Durihana Mission, a South Korean organization that aids North Korean defectors. Lee was caught and deported by Chinese police for helping the two reporters, who worked for former U.S. vice president Al Gore’s Internet news channel Current TV.

    Chinese police also confiscated related materials including list of activists working for North Korean refugees in China, data on North Korean orphans, and video footage showing North Korean women who were sold into the Chinese countryside or appeared in porn videos.

    Here is Lee again in the New York Times:

    “The reporters visited our place with a noble cause,” he added. “I did my best to help them. But I wonder how they could be so careless in handling their tapes and notebooks. They should have known that if they were caught, they would suffer for sure, but also many others would be hurt because of them.”

    On March 15, the crew met Mr. Lee in Yanji, a Chinese town near the northeastern border with North Korea, he said, but seeming lapses in security bothered him. For one, he said, they called his home telephone in Yanji — a serious breach of protocol for activists who operate under the constant fear of being monitored by the Chinese police.

    The Rev. Lee Chan-woo, a South Korean pastor, said the police raided his home in China on March 19, four days after the American journalists visited and filmed a secret site where he looked after children of North Korean refugee women. He said that he was then deported in early April and that his five secret homes for refugees were shut down. The children, he said, were dispersed to family members in China, who could not afford to take care of them.

  18. Sorry, here is the New York Times link from my above reply:

    I also have the unobscured faces evidence mentioned by Kushibo from the same NY Times article:

    Mr. Lee said he first asked the journalists not to film the children. When they assured him that they would obscure parts of the footage, like faces, Mr. Lee said he relaxed a bit. But he said he did not know until later that the crew asked children to face the camera and speak to their mothers, whom they had not seen for a long time. “After they left,” he said, “the children told me excitedly about being filmed.”

    Here is Mr. Lee talking about careless filming to the Chosun Ilbo:

    “I allowed them to collect information about the children on condition that they would not film their faces,” he said.
    The three visited an orphanage the following day. Euna Lee, who speaks fluent Korean, asked children to send video messages to their mothers who had been deported to the North, and to bow to their mothers in front of the camera. But Lee said he stopped them from filming the scene.

    One more tidbit is from Donald Kirk’s article:

    “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.”

  19. Spelunker wrote:

    Peters says: “For journalists to parachute into that area and think that the North Korean refugees are going to be eager to talk is really a bit naive.” Peters infers that Current TV was not fully prepared for the depths that they had to deal with and that’s why he is extremely cautious when lending assistance to people who are not deeply familiar with the terrain and not familiar with the possible consequences “if things go south” in their investigations.

    It seems to me that they thought they had such an experienced person in Mitch Koss, who gets less attention in this fiasco because (a) he escaped capture and did not need to be fished out and (b) he has nearly completely avoided the media spotlight given to Laura Ling and Euna Lee because of their high-profile “rescue” and now the book.

  20. Tom O’Neill talks about some of the precautions his group took:

    Cooperation came with ground rules. To protect the defectors and family members still in North Korea, National Geographic agreed not publish the real names of defectors or specific facts about their past in North Korea. We would not identify missionaries aiding them in China or reveal exact details about escape routes. We would not publish any photos of defectors, particularly ones showing their faces, unless they expressly gave their approval.
    Photographer Chien-Chi Chang and I went to China knowing that Chinese security forces closely monitor the movement of foreign journalists near the border. We couldn’t afford to do anything that would lead police to the hiding places of defectors. My “cover” was traveling as a tourist to Manchuria on a honeymoon with my Korean wife, So-Young Lee. To further reduce chances of attracting attention, I did not travel with the photographer. Chien-Chi and I kept our calls short and spoke in codes, sometimes changing our phone numbers.

    The necessity of the precautions then hit home:

    At times we laughed amongst ourselves at these cat-and-mouse tactics, but they were doubly necessary once we learned just days before my arrival in China that a safe house harboring eight defectors in Shenyang had been raided after a visit from South Korean journalists. All of the defectors were captured and sent back to North Korea.(It seems the Current crew are not the only journalists that caused problems for defectors. I am sure those journalist’s had good intentions as well.)

    Durihana and others differ with the Current crew on the amount of precautions that were being taken in Yanji. But it is evident from the book, at least to me, that sometime during the last night at Yanji that the group, for whateve reason, through caution to the wind and took the ill fated trip to the Tumin. Laura Ling also takes full resonsibliltiy for the decision in the book and on some of the talk shows.

    I don’t have all the details of that night I would like, but there is nothing one can do about that.

  21. WOW! Thank you!

    Yes, I do remember the National Geographic article and for some reason I also thought (maybe in a documentary somewhere?) I heard that journalists-period. were not allowed in N. Korea.?

    Thanks for clearing the air guys.

    I know I have read things, but my ability to retain information fails me sometimes.

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