The Dear Reader: DPRK Observations & Musings


The Mystery of Mitchell Koss

Somewhere in Glendale, CA, there is a 56-year-old resident who must constantly be reliving what he experienced March 17th on the Chinese-North Korean border, and wondering whether it could have all, somehow, gone down differently. I’m talking of course about Mitchell Koss, the producer-cameraman who has worked with Laura Ling before and was in tow with she, Euna Lee and a Chinese guide on that fateful night.

Though Koss has remained publicly silent, he most certainly has briefed the State Department in the days following his fortunate escape to the Chinese side. He may even have been asked by the State Department not to say anything. But there are some possible clues as to what he might have said privately.

When the LingLee families went public, @lisaling repeatly apologized on behalf of Ling and Lee if, by some accident and with no prior intent, they crossed into North Korea. A similar sentiment informed a letter sent to the country by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This could reflect a course of action that was deemed most acceptable to the North Koreans, or it could indicate Koss revealed that the @current crew did indeed accidently cross the dividing line. But I want to emphasize, the latter is just a guess on my part.

On an entirely different note, I don’t envy Koss one bit for the mix of relief and guilt he is sure to be feeling. Think about it: three L.A. residents head out on a dangerous assignment, but the only one to make it back is a man who was unable to save two, younger women.

This is in no way a knock of Koss’ behavior; the March 17th incident probably happened so fast and frighteningly that his options were limited. It’s just an acknowledgment of one of this horrible incident’s deep rooted resonances.


Filed under: Mitchell Koss

25 Responses

  1. Kelly Lake says:

    how was he able to escape & the girls didn’t?

  2. bartscrivner says:

    Maybe he was shooting Laura doing an interview with Euna translating. Who knows? I really doubt that they crossed the border knowingly, but anything is possible.

    If North Korean border police had dragged them over the border, I think we would have heard about it, but once again, who can say?

  3. bartscrivner says:

    However, Lisa Ling’s hidden camera adventure could have ended in her execution–had she been caught. Current should have thought about that when assigning this story–North Korea’s secret service would have made the family connection, and may have been watching for a long time.

  4. Sinbad says:

    “If North Korean border police had dragged them over the border, I think we would have heard about it, but once again, who can say?”

    Mitch can say. But three months he ain’t said anything…

  5. Spelunker says:

    I have a source claiming Koss escaped “at the last minute”

    Perhaps they grabbed his video camera and after a struggle he finally released it in order to get away. That’s my guess.

    • liberatelaura says:

      One of the biggest unanswered questions remains: Why would Ling, Lee and-or Koss ignore the good Reverend’s warning not to go anywhere near the NK-China border? Or, if the guide was paid off, how did he manage to convince them to?

  6. Spelunker says:

    The decision to obtain footage of the Tumen River border area was either made by the local guide (Kim Sung-chul) or Mitch Koss. On March 17 the Current TV crew was scheduled to go to Dandong (Liaoning province) from Yanji (Jilin province). This is approximately a 16 hour drive, thus perhaps the pre-dawn departure time. (The incident occured around 6 a.m.)

    Euna Lee was the main contact with Pastor Chun, who warned her not to go near the Tumen River border area, so she is least likely responsible for the decision. Of course we all know the experience of Laura Ling’s sister Lisa with National Geographic, so I doubt Laura would express such an intention as well. If the Tumen River expedition was the idea of Mitch Koss, then it would help explain his Current silence.
    Did he come up with the idea to film footage at the Tumen River? It really was not necessary for their documentary’s assignment (interviewing refugees in Yanji) and was more of a way to enhance the doumentary by actually showing the river that North Korean refugees crossed to China. Before we blame Mitch there is still one detail left to analyze; the exact choice of location for this excursion.

    Now suppose the Current TV crew just wanted to shoot some innocent file footage of the Tumen River border area to embellish their Yanji filming. This could have been done from the safety of China’s shore of the Tumen River at the town of Tumen, a 45 minute drive on highway 302 from Yanji. The Current TV crew already completed their interviews with North Korean refugees in Yanji during the previous 2 days, so a quick side trip to the town by the river would have been feasible before embarking in the opposite direction toward Dandong. Tumen Town is a common tourist sightseeing destination usually done as a half day trip from Yanji.

    However the actual location where Current TV’s crew approached the North Korea border (according to the Korean version of the KCNA report) is further east downstream near the North Korean town of Onsong; a detour from Tumen Town which is off the beaten path. I seriously doubt the Current TV crew knew about this location in advance and could have pointed at a map and asked the guide specifically to take them there instead of Tumen Town.
    The only way that might happen is if the Current TV crew told guide Kim Sung-chul “We don’t want to go to tourist trap Tumen, take us somewhere more isolated instead” and left it up to the guide’s own discretion. Yet that would still be too risky, in my opinion.

    Therefore I still believe the choice of location was ultimately selected by the local guide and not on the whim of Mitch Koss or Laura Ling. Why would the guide take them out there if they simply requested Tumen River footage? 9 out of 10 local guides would have taken the foreign guests to Tumen Town because it’s the easiest and safest place to go. Keep in mind that they were scheduled to go to Dandong afterward, so a remote side trip further downstream does not make much sense to me if they simply wanted Tumen River footage.

    This alternative place where the guide took Current TV’s crew is clearly more dangerous than Tumen Town. Thus I suspect the guide somehow persuaded Mitch Koss that it would be better to film somewhere else; perhaps as a way to not attract unwanted attention from local Chinese authorities. Maybe the experienced guide said something like this: “No good film here, we go another place not far not far… nobody see you filming…trust me; I go there many time before…very good place”

    Upon reaching the frozen Tumen River, the guide may have led them across a small tributary onto an island close to shore. Several of the small islands on the Tumen and Yalu Rivers belong to Pyongyang and have North Korean sentry patrols as well as posts. Therefore it may not appear that you have walked all the way across the Tumen River by setting foot on one of these islands midstream.

    One such island has gained notoriety on the Chinese domestic tour circuit in Dandong. Near a reconstructed section of the Great Wall at Hushan is another sightseeing destination called “Yi Bu Kua” featuring a plot of land called “Yu Chi Island” separated from the Chinese shore by a small tributary. During the winter months it is possible to traverse the tributary with a couple of leaping bounds and set foot on North Korean soil. South Koreans and other foreigners gradually discovered this Chinese attraction and it became a popular half day trip from Dandong.

    If Current TV asked to be taken further away from Tumen Town to film the river then it was perhaps an impromptu change of mind that morning.
    Yet it would not surprise me if the guide planned a plot all along to lead the Current TV crew to an isolated location at an appointed time, even at the risk of himself getting caught by Chinese border guards because he obviously was not too concerned about the North Koreans.
    The guide’s potential reward from North Korean agents is much higher than any risk of fine or short sentence given to him by local Chinese police.

  7. Mike says:

    Why is everybody giving a free pass to this coward (Mitchell Koss)? The women are free and still, this Rat isn’t talking. He wasn’t only the cameraman but also the Producer (Captain of the ship). He abandoned these women (his mates) to their own fate, to rot in a North Korean jail. Why wasn’t he there to receive them (at the airport) once they’re back home?

    But the real truth is they all broke the law, North Korean (yes, even them have Laws) and Chinese Laws. They had no valid Visa from the Chinese Government to cross over to North Korea. They’re forewarned not to go there because it was a Trap. Still, they did it and we got caught with our pants down to the knees.

    Mitchell Koss is a BIG COWARD! Stop defending this yellow-belly.

    • liberatelaura says:

      Actually, the majority of people are not giving Koss a free pass. Rather, they share your general sentiments.

      He told @NYTimes last week that he will only speak after Ling and Lee have shared. The upcoming Op Ed, and then Koss comments, will provide a lot of interesting perspective. Perhaps Koss refused to cross with Ling-Lee, hence his distance from NK capture, ability to escape to Chinese side. TBD.

    • Jeremy says:

      I’m certainly not giving him a free pass and you may be right about him being a coward, unless Laura Ling told him to run and save himself, that is.
      But even if he is to blame for a lot (especially since it was also the items confiscated from him that were mainly used to hunt down refugees), Ling still shares responsibility for it as his boss. That’s just the way it is.

      But I take issue with saying they broke the law, at least in regard to crossing into North Korea. Lisa Ling also “broke the law” while making her excellent documentary on North Korea, even if she took considerably more precautions than her sister did. Besides, North Korea is an illegal state in itself.

  8. Mike says:

    Thanks for the comment, liberatelaura. I’ve been trying to find anything about Mr. Koss (googling) but no luck. And anything I found (old stuff) was always (95% of the times) a freebie for this Koss guy. The key statement here is “they all stand to makes millions of dollars off of this episode.”

    Again, thanks for your comment.

  9. Mike says:

    BTW – here’s where I found that comment (all stand to makes millions of dollars)

    • Mike says:

      Has anyone read this story ( It’s full of holes and a load of Crapola. For example, this quote:

      >>>The journalists said they “didn’t spend more than a minute on North Korean soil before turning back” to the Chinese side, and recalled there were no signs marking the international border at the area.<<>>Ling and Lee said while they were in detention, they swallowed their notes, damaged their videotapes and made other efforts to protect the identities of their sources.<<<

      Are you kidding me? Do you believe for one second that North Koreans are so stupid that they forgot to strip search these Ladies? AMAZING! It proves that one month of silence was long enough for them to learn their lines. They're coached, like prosecutors coach their witnesses. They are covering their "behinds" because they're accused by South Koreans of compromising the refugees and the activists who helped these refugees.

      Are you (all who have posted here) still supportive of these people who did more harm than good?

      I can now hear the sound, Ka-ching $$$$!

  10. Mike says:

    The following is by far the best article Í have read:

    It almost ask the same questions I have after reading their (Lee & Ling) statement.

    The book deals are a-coming and the refugees are a-scr*wed!

    • liberatelaura says:

      Don’t count on any book deal. The @WSJ report about them soliciting publishers was wrong; it was the other way around. Publishers came a knockin’ while the Burbank tarmac was still warm…

  11. By the way, had to laugh that the Mitch Koss participation promo-ed by Current TV ahead of their special Vanguard Season Four debut episode on May 19th, 2010 (“Captive in North Korea”) consisted of a quick throwaway B-roll shot of Koss on the airplane on the way over. Unless I missed it, do not believe Koss said a word otherwise.

    Other than unrelated items on the Vanguard blog, Koss has steadfastly deferred to his one-time and former boss.

    • Spelunker says:

      We were promised interviews with Mitch and Euna by Vanguard in advance of “Captive in North Korea” but Laura is the only one featured in the half hour show. Host Adam Yamaguchi did mention that Euna was not ready to speak on camera but no explanation or excuse was given for the silence of Mitch Koss.

  12. Tim says:

    In the book, Laura states that she told Mr. Koss to keep filming and he turned the camera on her. Did he hide that film when he turned himself in, as the book states, to the Chinese authorities? Does that film exist?

    • The Koss camera and footage was confiscated by the Chinese, although Koss was released fairly quickly, about 17 hours after being arrested.

      You can be sure that if anything on his camera showed the Chinese river bank side return of the Ling-Lee episode, that this footage will never see the light of day. The bigger concern is whether the subsequent Chinese crackdown on Durihana and other NK refugee enclaves had something to do with the materials seized from Koss. Even if he took the same precautions as those mentioned by Laura re: the Euna camera footage (refugees and helpers shot from the waist down, or only the back of their heads, etc.), his notes and such in the hands of the Chinese may have been a source of the most detrimental action.

      • Tim says:

        Of course the biggest concern is the effect his materials had on the crackdown. But Lisa says that Mitch turned himself in to the Chinese in order to get help. I can see a scenario where tapes could be hidden. Obviously some footage made it out because it was shown on Current. I’m just speculating, in the absence of truth. The two that know the truth are silent.

        Off this topic, but thanks for the National Geogrpahic article. The best was the Field Notes part. I also noticed the photographer was able to get pictures of guards and other spots in the North. Also of note is that team is not the first group of journalists to cause defectors to be deported. Thanks again.

  13. Not sure the footage shown on Current 5/19 means Koss stuff was returned. Could have been uploaded via Internet before their capture.

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