Freed U.S. journalists suspect they were ‘lured into a trap’

Freed U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee said they spent less than a minute on North Korean soil.
The two U.S. journalists released from North Korea last month after five months in captivity said "the psychological wounds of imprisonment are slow to heal."

In a column posted on the Los Angeles Times Web site Tuesday night, Laura Ling and Euna Lee also said they were seized by North Korean soldiers on Chinese soil. They raised suspicions about their guide and wondered if they had been “lured into a trap.” “We didn’t spend more than a minute on North Korean soil before turning back, but it is a minute we deeply regret,” they said. Working for California-based Current TV, a media venture of Vice President Al Gore, the two journalists were arrested in March after stepping on North Korean soil. They were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor and eventually pardoned by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il after he met with President Clinton early in August. Ling and Lee didn’t go into much more detail about their experience in captivity, saying there are “things that are still too painful to visit.” But they provided information about the day of their arrest and reporting on North Korean defections to China and the human trafficking industry that supports them. Accompanied by a guide, the pair said they had been at the “frozen” Tumen River on March 17 separating China and North Korea “to document a well-used trafficking route.” “As the sun appeared over the horizon, our guide stepped onto the ice. We followed him,” they said, referring to a Korean-Chinese man they said has worked for foreign journalists. A producer, Mitch Koss, was also with them. The border between China and North Korea was not clearly marked, and it had no fences or barbed wire, they said.

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“But we knew our guide was taking us closer to the North Korean side of the river. As he walked, he began making deep, low hooting sounds, which we assumed was his way of making contact with North Korean border guards he knew,” they said. The journalists said that the guide told them he called people in North Korea the night before to arrange an interview, but that effort failed. However, he said he would show the journalists “the no-man’s land along the river, where smugglers pay off guards to move human traffic from one country to another.” “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,” they wrote. The women said they became nervous and headed back to 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.” They wrote that Koss and the guide outran the guards, but the two women got caught. “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.” The women have raised doubts about their guide. They said he “seemed cautious and responsible” in the days before the capture, and noted he was always concerned “about protecting our interview subjects and not taking unnecessary risks.” “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.” They said “to this day, we still don’t know if we were lured into a trap.” “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,” the wrote. The women said they were in that region of North Korea “to raise awareness about the harsh reality facing these North Korean defectors who, because of their illegal status in China, live in terror of being sent back to their homeland.”