Chosun Ilbo: Laura Ling and Euna Lee Were Lured into N. Korea

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.


  1. I’m not passionate any which way on this, but I can’t cut them any slack for crossing over. They knew better than to do that. Any reporter like that should have known better.

    I don’t think they should have even gone halfway across the river – whether that was still Chinese territory or not. But, they should have never set foot on North Korean soil. It was a no-brainer. The only reason could be temporary brainlessness. And that isn’t an excuse.

    I don’t feel no animosity over the incident. None at all. It was just an incredibly stupid act by people who surely knew better before they put themselves in that position by walking onto the ice in the first place.


  2. This is, even by the Chosun Ilbo’s own standards, slim pickings. If they had sat down at a meeting and said, “Well he is dead, so he can’t argue; let’s run that story!” I would not be surprised.

    Which, as you say, is not to say it is not possible; simply to say that it is another example of why reporting North Korea requires individuals of impeccable ethics. Ditto the intelligence services. Both are, I’d say, falling well, well short of what is needed.


  3. Regardless of whether the guide was secretly working for the DPRK or not, I still believe they should not have crossed over to North Korea in the first place. I am willing to be that they wanted to get footage of themselves standing in North Korea for the program they were filming and it back fired on them and had follow on consequences for the US government.


  4. I may have been a little careless in paraphrasing you: I said you noted that “there’s not a scintilla of evidence” to support the claim, but you wrote “the Chosun Ilbo doesn’t offer one scintilla of detail on its source for the story or why we should consider it credible,” which is not quite exactly specifically the same thing.


  5. The so-called “intelligence” that Ryu Kyong obtained probably came from Reverend Chun Ki-won and the Durihana Mission’s January 2009 recruitment of the Yanji-based ethnic Korean guide Jin Chengzhe (김성철) and his ensuing introduction to Laura and Euna.

    Tom O’Neill mentioned in his Feb. 2009 National Geographic article that Chun Ki-won made reckless decisions and that his top Tumen River guide is a former drug smuggler. Laura’s May 2010 interview with NPR goes into more detail about the ethnic Korean guide who led Current TV’s crew across the Tumen River, confirming that the guide was indeed a former smuggler, which sister Lisa should have known already from her complimentary subscription to National Geographic magazine (February 2009 issue featuring Tom O’Neill’s Durihana interview) Here are Laura’s own words from the NPR interview:
    “Now previously, our guide had told us that he had connections in North Korea. Our guide was involved in smuggling goods himself. And so, in my mind, I thought he was trying to make a connection with some of the border guards that he knew.”

    The key information would have come from the guide after Chun Ki-won most likely detailed the plan that former Vice President Al Gore’s media company would be gift-wrapping Lisa Ling’s sister, an ethnic Korean-American, and Mitch Koss for a journalistic jaunt into the China-North Korea border area.

    The theory that Laura, Euna, and Mitch were lured into a trap was put forth by Donald Kirk and Spelunker in June 2009. New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof also said in June 2009 that he was inclined to believe that the Current TV reporters were sold to North Korea by the local guide.

    In August 2009, shortly after Ling and Lee’s release, British journalist Michael Sheridan finally hit the nail on the head with this fascinating revelation:

    “There is a strong suspicion that he [the guide] was heavily involved and it was a trap,” said an experienced activist who has led dozens of refugees to safety. Such suspicions are bolstered by a first-hand account given to The Sunday Times by an American missionary who was warned by Chinese police a month earlier that the North Koreans were trying to capture a foreign journalist.
    In February (2009) a detachment of plainclothes Chinese officers detained the missionary as he took photographs not far from a tourist spot at a bridge across the river at the city of Tumen.
    He was held for interrogation for several hours and later released without charge. During his questioning the officers warned him that the North Koreans were known to be hunting for a “foreign prize” along the twisting, narrow course of the river, where the border is erratic as it meanders along sandbanks and shallows. “They were after a journalist,” said the missionary.


  6. Spelunker wrote:

    for a journalistic jaunt into the China-North Korea border area across the China-North Korean border

    There, fixed that for ya.

    All these conspiracy theories got their start at a time when few believed the Stupogants would have knowingly and willingly crossed the “erratic border” (a river!) of their accord to spend time on North Korean soil. But even after that tidbit was revealed, some have held fast to the idea that they were still somehow duped into this whole thing.


  7. Sorry kushibo, there was no mistake to fix. The China-North Korea border area generally consists of the parts of Jilin and Liaoning provinces directly west of the Tumen and Yalu rivers. Crossing the North Korea border was not part of the original plan in January 2009 when Current TV was in discussion with Durihana to acquire a guide for the Yanji (Jilin province) area. There is sufficient evidence to support the fact that Reverend Chun Ki-won did warn Laura and Euna not to go near the actual Tumen River border. (For border footage embellishment Rev. Chun actually proposed filming it in Dandong, which was the next stop on Current TV’s March 2009 itinerary.)

    The real mistake in this matter was the hiring of the ethnic Korean guide in Yanji, which was not really necessary since the sole reason to bring Euna Lee along for her first assignment abroad was to utilize her fluent Korean language for communication with refugees in the vicinity of Yanji. Durihana already had a South Korean missionary in position at Yanji to facilitate the refugee interviews required for the original project.

    There was absolutely no need for Laura and Euna to hire a guide to take them across the river, since that was not supposed to be in any of Current TV’s stated intentions. National Geographic’s Tom O’Neill proved in February 2009 that it was possible to perform responsible journalism in the China North Korea border area without approaching the actual border; the Current TV caper was mismanaged by 3 individuals (Laura, Euna, and Mitch) who were persuaded by a local Chinese citizen of questionable character to take a foolish unnecessary risk.


  8. To understand this incident, we should consider Euna Lee’s account of it in her book. Here is how I would summarize it.

    March 9, 2009, the Current TV team arrives in Seoul for two days. Laura Ling and Mitch Koss were to return to LA March 20, Euna to stay in South Korea another week, to visit friends, or to shoot more footage if needed.

    They interview defectors at the office of Pastor Chun; visited Imjingak, a park on the border with North Korea; visited Pastor Chun’s church outside Seoul.

    Next morning, more interviews. Two South Korean reporters gave advice about gathering information in China, and warned of double agents. One of these reporters had recommended their guide, bur Pastor Chun had already hired him for them.

    Interview with Pastor Chun. He set up interviews in China and gave the Current team a cell phone.

    Friday, March 13, Yanji, northeastern China, within 20 miles of North Korea, ‘the perfect place to seek out defectors and get footage of the Tumen River.’

    Interview with Mr. Lee, who ran foster homes.

    Meeting the guide. His answers were vague, so Euna wasn’t sure he’d be able to help them to meet the kinds of people they wanted to interview and places they wanted to film. ‘Because I had done the research and set up the trip, I felt responsible for the situation we were in.’ The next morning, he was late, but they got good footage. On the Tumen Bridge, they stood with one foot in China and one in North Korea. That day, they shot B-roll, but no interviews.

    Sunday, March 15, they interviewed a woman who had been sold to a Chinese farmer. Back in Yanji, they visited one of Mr. Lee’s foster homes, without the guide.

    Monday, March 16, they interviewed a woman forced into the internet sex trade. With the guide, they went outside Yanji to interview a man who had recently fled North Korea. The guide received a call which he said was from a North Korean officer who often called him.

    Mitch, Laura, and Euna considered what they would do that evening. Euna suggested going to the Tumen, to show the cold, isolated place where defectors crossed. She and the guide agreed to go to the middle of the river. Mitch didn’t want to, but finally Laura agreed to it. Then Mitch said, OK, first thing in the morning. So they decided to stay at a hotel near the Tumen, instead of going back to Yanji.

    Mitch and Laura went right to the hotel. Euna tried to record a call by the guide to his North Korean contact, but no one answered. Euna and the guide talked a little. He said he had recently been trapped in North Korea but wouldn’t explain how he escaped. He said, ‘When one makes promises, one must keep them.’ Then she asked him to take her to the river. She got night-vision footage of his legs walking toward the river.

    She went to the hotel. Pastor Chun called to ask how they were doing and to warn them to be careful. She got just a couple hours sleep before Laura called her. It was after 4AM, March 17, and they needed to get to the river before sunrise so the authorities wouldn’t see them. The guide took them to a different, more remote area. As he approached the middle of the river, he began hooting. The Current team assumed hew was trying to communicate with North Korean border guards he knew. There was no answer. Mitch and Euna filmed Laura reporting from mid-river. Euna wanted to back away, so her video would show how narrow the river was, but the guide said no, the ice back there is too thin. Then he motioned for them to follow him past the mid-point, into North Korean territory.

    When they stepped onto dry land, the guide pointed to a village. Euna ‘knew we were glimpsing an important part of the underground railroad by which thousands of North Koreans have been smuggled into China.’ They started to cross the river back toward China. Mitch saw soldiers and yelled, ‘Run!’ He got away. Laura and Euna reached Chinese soil, but Laura fell. The guide urged Euna to run, and he pulled her arm, but she fell, too. Then he told her to give them money, but they wouldn’t take it. He told them to take him and let the others go, but they refused. He suddenly ran away. One of the soldiers chased him, but he escaped. They grabbed Laura and Euna. Euna latched onto a bush, but the soldier kicked her shoulders and back. She covered her head with her arms, and he dragged her away. She saw Laura being dragged, too, with blood streaming down her face.


  9. Very experienced journalists, far past the “girl” stage – although they like to refer to themselves as “girls” – would never have taken such a risk with a dictator nation. There’s plenty of decent footage from a safe distance.

    When the Great Leader realized his wonderful catch – American idiots, great! – it would finally be a chance to meet Bill Clinton, a man he admired in spite of everything. So he just instructed people down the line to work on Laura Ling until she used her husband, her parents and her sister, not to mention the Al Gore connection, to finally grab the ex-Prez and get the White House to okay it.

    I found the book SOMEWHERE INSIDE by accident, vaguely remembering the case in the news, and read it although much of it was the usual sappy oh-my-poor-sister kind of writer that needs to be deleted or just skimmed over. It was not good journalistic writing, but okay, they were trying to sell to the Oprah crowd of emotionalism.

    I wonder if the similarity in appearance to the Koreans had any bearing at all, but it certainly is not brought up. These two sisters were tall and slim, as many Koreans can be, and have the Asiatic eyes and other features that mark them as separate from “mainstream Americans”. Their captors were certainly captivated by the American attitudes of righteousness and entitlement that Laura exuded. That she was and had to be coached constantly in order to conform to Korean humbleness and gratitude, to kowtow in other words, this must have amused the Koreans no end.

    Well, five brutal months later, she’s back with family and friends, and voila! A child, a girl – not considered good luck in Asian countries. If it had been a boy, it would have been much greater news to the Koreans who’d known her.

    I wonder if the ulcers ever cleared up, were they from H. pylorus or not?

    Meanwhile, we the viewers and readers get to think about North Korea, even though the average American is working so many hours to finance the Clintons and Obamas and allthe rest travelling the world – well, so now we have a clue that they’re really nasty and that the average Korean is miserable, but hoping bright and beautiful dresses might have been sent to Laura Ling to show her vibrant country, USA.