Let’s start with the claim, that North Korean spymaster Ryu Kyong recruited the mysterious guide who led Laura Ling and Euna Lee to that remote place along the Tumen River, then across to North Korea where guards were waiting. Subsequent reports fill in the rest — that Ling and Lee heard a commotion, ran back across the river into Chinese territory, and that the North Koreans pursued them across the river and dragged them back across and into captivity in North Korea:
Ryu, who served as the deputy director of North Korea’s State Security Department, obtained intelligence that Laura Ling and Euna Lee, journalists working for Current TV, were planning to visit the North Korean border as part of their report on defectors.
He then used his overseas operatives to bribe an ethnic Korean guide in China to lead the two women into the hands of their abductors. The guide took Ling and Lee to a point on the banks of the Duman (or Tumen) River, where they were dragged across the border into North Korea.
The abduction, which occurred just after U.S. President Barack Obama took office, prompted the White House to dispatch former U.S. President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang in August of that year. It also served as a propaganda coup for Pyongyang, which boasted that a former U.S. leader had to “bow before General Kim Jong-il and beg for forgiveness.” [Chosun Ilbo]
A big hat tip here to Paul Song, a long-time advocate for human rights in North Korea and the husband of Laura Ling’s sister, Lisa.
I’m tempted to gloat and savor the sweet vindication of my own pet conspiracy theory, one that I’ve inclined to from the very beginning, and which other media reports have since supported. But even if the theory is plausible — it fits well within the range of North Korea’s past behavior — the Chosun Ilbo doesn’t offer one scintilla of detail on its source for the story or why we should consider it credible. It’s interesting, however, to turn our wayback machine to what Laura Ling said about crossing the border:
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. They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained. [L.A. Times]
In retrospect, you can still stand on your criticism that Laura and Euna shouldn’t have followed, although you can begin to understand their decision if you imagine yourself alone in a remote spot between two hostile states. All I can say is, it’s plausible that this was a lure/ambush. It always was. What I can’t say is that this report goes far to prove it. The fact that Paul forwards the story suggests that Ling believes it (doesn’t it?).
In the days before our capture, our guide had seemed cautious and responsible; he was as concerned as we were about protecting our interview subjects and not taking unnecessary risks. That is in part why we made the decision to follow him across the river.
We didn’t spend more than a minute on North Korean soil before turning back, but it is a minute we deeply regret. To this day, we still don’t know if we were lured into a trap. In retrospect, the guide behaved oddly, changing our starting point on the river at the last moment and donning a Chinese police overcoat for the crossing, measures we assumed were security precautions. But it was ultimately our decision to follow him, and we continue to pay for that decision today with dark memories of our captivity.
It would be nice to get at least that much eyewitness confirmation, and there are a lot of questions I’d like to be able to ask about that. The one person who isn’t ever going to sort all of this out for us is Ryu, who was later sent to the firing squad, possibly for unrelated reasons.
Incidentally — and stop me if you’ve heard this somewhere — North Korea was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008 for its tremendous strides toward complete, verifiable, irreversible nuclear disarmament, and quite possibly also some promises to never engage in the state sponsorship of terrorism again. Discuss among yourselves.
In somewhat related news, North Koreans continue to stream out of their homeland by any means necessary. ITN provides this video report on the rising flow of North Korean refugees into Thailand, and as you’ve no doubt heard by now, nine more North Koreans made it to the South by sea last week. When groups of North Koreans cross over to the South by boat, we often tend to hear later that some of them want to return, but not this time.