Another sign of North Korea’s regime insecurity

11 06 2009

Euna Lee_Lora Linby Leonid Petrov for ABC Unleashed (11 June 2009)

Two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were arrested on March 17, 2009 on the Sino-North Korean border, appeared before the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s(DPRK) Central Court. They were sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labour camp for illegally crossing borders and for espionage activity. What prompted such a harsh sentence, and what does Pyongyang want us to make of all this?

Over the past 12 months, the DPRK authorities have shown remarkable consistency. In its quest to return the country to complete isolation, Pyongyang is willing to take any action, including the most stringent.

Rigid policies are aimed not only at their own people but foreign citizens as well. Back in 2005, during the two months of Arirang Festival, the country was demonstrating friendliness by opening its borders to tourists from the United States. In 2007, North Korea went even further, allowing South Korean tourists to cross the demilitarised zone (DMZ) in their own cars.

However, last year saw a dramatic policy reverse. Areas of inter-Korean cooperation started closing down, “unreliable” tourists were mercilessly refused visas or deported, and those who chose unconventional ways to enter the country, were incarcerated or even killed.

On July 11, 2008 a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean housewife Pak Wan Ja, who allegedly tried to “infiltrate a security zone” adjacent to the jointly managed Geumgangsan tourist resort on the eastern coast of Korea.

South Korea immediately suspended the entry of tourists to the ill-fated zone of cooperation. North Korea refused to apologise and neglected Seoul’s invitation to conduct a joint investigation into the incident. Since then, the Geumgangsan resort remains deserted with most of the staff (South Korean and Chinese citizens) deported.

On March 30, 2009 a 40-year-old South Korean businessman named Yu (the full name is suppressed) was arrested by the North Korean authorities in Gaeseong Industrial Park, another area of inter-Korean cooperation located north of the DMZ.

He was accused of “anti-North Korean propaganda” and “inducing a DPRK citizen to defect to South Korea”. No details related to this matter have so far been released. North Korea stubbornly refuses to discuss the issue at any bi-lateral negotiations. In the meantime, Yu remains in custody somewhere in the DPRK without consular access or contact with relatives.

The third similar incident was the arrest of the two US journalists. Korean-American Euna Lee (Lee Seung-Eun) and Chinese-American Laura Ling  decided to make a documentary about North Korean refugees, people smugglers, and the repressive regime.

Their employer was California-based Current TV, founded by the former US Vice-President Al Gore. This project was probably inspired by Laura’s elder sister, a well-known TV reporter Lisa Ling. In 2006, together with Australian cameramen Brian Green, Lisa Ling accompanied an eye surgeon from Nepal, Dr. Sanduk Riut, who was practicing in North Korea.

Laura Ling was going to repeat the feat of the elder sister, together with her Korean-speaking companion, Euna Lee. They first visited South Korea, where they interviewed the specialists working in close contact with North Korean refugees (including Dr. Andrei Lankov of the Australian National University).

It was at that time that the crew’s activities started grabbing people’s attention. Someone in Seoul, with connections to North Korean government, might have communicated to Pyongyang information about the filming project.

Lee and Ling’s next stop was Northeastern China – a haven of illegal immigrants from North Korea. We know that the journalists travelled in the company of Californian cameraman and producer Mitchell Koss and a Chinese fixer. After visiting the city of Yanji, the group went to the Sino-Korean border area to film North Korean refugees and Chinese smugglers crossing the river.

What happened next remains a mystery….

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