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North Korea 31 March 2009

Two American journalists face up to 10 years in labour camps

Reporters Without Borders urges the North Korean authorities not to go ahead with their announced intention to try two American journalists of Asian origin, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, on charges of entering the country illegally and carrying out “hostile” activities.

The two journalists, who work for San Francisco-based online television station Current TV, were arrested by the North Korean authorities on 17 March after travelling through northern China to the North Korean border to do a story on trafficking in North Korean women. According to an email which one of them sent to a Reporters Without Borders contact, they wanted to investigate the networks organising the smuggling of women out of North Korea and their sale in China.

The state-owned North Korean news agency KCNA announced on 30 March that they have been charged with “illegal” entry. “The illegal entry of US reporters into the DPRK [North Korea] and their suspected hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their statements,” the news agency said. If convicted, they could be sentenced to between five and 10 years of forced labour.

A Swedish diplomat has been allowed to visit them in Pyongyang.

It is by no means clear that Ling and Lee were arrested on North Korean territory. Several sources on the Chinese side of the frontier told Reporters Without Borders that the North Korean border guards probably crossed the Tumen (the river that forms the border) while Ling and Lee were filming on the Chinese bank. In a documentary made by South Korean journalists called “On the border,” North Korean border guards can be seen crossing the river and landing on the Chinese side without running into any problems.

North Korean border guards on the Chinese bank

“There is an urgent need for North Korea’s neighbours, especially China, to apply diplomatic pressure to obtain the release of Ling and Lee as soon as possible,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It would be unacceptable if North Korea used the two journalists for diplomatic blackmail at a time when it has stepped up tension in the peninsula by announcing a missile launch.”

The press freedom organisation added: “South Korean journalists and foreign journalists have been briefly arrested in the past while doing reports in North Korea, but this is the first time that foreign journalists have been held for any length of time since Japanese reporter Takashi Sugishima’s detention from December 1999 to February 2002.”

North Korea is one of the hardest countries in the world for the foreign media to cover. The North Korean authorities occasionally issue press visas for cultural or sports events or for visits by foreign officials. Once inside North Korea, journalists are closely watched by the North Korean authorities, who prevent them from interviewing members of the public. Entire regions of the country are completely closed to the international media.

It is also very difficult for the foreign press to operate freely in the Chinese provinces adjoining the North Korean border. South Korean and North Korean journalists who often work in the border region say trying to cover refugees and trafficking there is still very risky. “Chinese police raids and the presence of many undercover North Korean agents make working on the border very complicated,” Reporters Without Borders was told by a journalist working for an independent North Korean radio station based in Seoul.

North Koreans take an enormous risk if they provide information to the news media. Reporters Without Borders has documented the case of Kim Sung Chul, a member of the armed forces who has been held since October 2006 after the Kukka Anjon Bowibu (state security) identified him as the person who clandestinely filmed the video of a public execution that was broadcast on the Japanese television station Asahi TV. He is now in a concentration camp.

A North Korean TV journalist, Song Keum Chul, has been detained in a camp since 1996 for questioning the official version of certain historic events.

International human rights organisations estimate that at least 200,000 people are detained in North Korea’s concentration camps and reeducation camps.

Reporters Without Borders and the International Women’s Media Foundation ( have launched a petition for the immediate release of Ling and Lee. Their guide, an ethnic Korean with Chinese citizenship, is reportedly being held by the Chinese authorities. A third American journalist, cameraman Mitch Koss, was deported after being held by the Chinese police. Sign the petition.

We urge Koss to lose no time in clarifying the circumstances in which Ling and Lee were arrested.

In this country
3 June - North Korea
Pyongyang judges asked to be lenient with two American journalists
24 April - North Korea
Two American women journalists to be tried soon
17 April - North Korea
Two American journalists have already spent one month in custody
27 March - North Korea
Petition for the unconditional release of two American journalists
23 March - North Korea
Two US journalists transferred to Pyongyang for questioning

in the annual report
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