The Dear Reader: DPRK Observations & Musings


The Bluff Guide to North Korea

There is much to digest in the September 2nd @latimes Op Ed piece authored by Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

They were captured not on the North Korean riverbank that they crossed over to but rather on the Chinese side of the frozen Tumen as they tried to flee; they apparently mistook the hooting sounds and cell phone calls made by their Chinese-Korean guide (separate from other odd behavior) as a way of communicating with friendly North Korean associates rather than ruthless border guards; and they insist that they went out of their way to destroy evidence and protect the identities of interview subjects and those who helped them, in the latter case despite “rigorous, daily interrogations.”

Although the pair claim that “to this day, we still don’t know if we were lured into a trap,” all signs point to the aforementioned guide – Kim Seong-cheol – being the man responsible for the mother of all @current contretemps. Which begs a new question: Where the hell is he?

When Ling and Lee were released in early August, @ReportersWB called on Chinese authorities to release Seong-cheol, as was cameraman-producer Mitchell Koss shortly after March 17th. The organization designated the Chinese-Korean as a third journalist in Chinese captivity, but that really is a bit of a stretch; a better description, based in part on information gleaned from a February 2009 National Geographic article, would have been former drug smuggler with excellent North Korean connections.

I was told not long ago that Seong-chol‘s brother claims he knows nothing of his sibling’s whereabouts. Is he covering for someone already living off the bounty of having delivered Ling and Lee to North Korea? Perhaps. But the more likely scenario is that the Chinese do not want Seong-chol sharing his story with anyone, at least for the time being.

Update01/04/10: Guide Kim Seong-cheol was released from Chinese captivity on October 10th, 2009, after which he fully debriefed LingLee trip sponsor Durihana about what happened at the border. However, my requests for an e-mail interview with Seong-cheol, via Reverend Chun Ki-won at Durihana, were denied.


Filed under: Euna Lee, Laura Ling, Mitchell Koss

26 Responses

  1. Spelunker says:

    The Chinese will never give us any information. The government in Beijing just censored their own country’s media in Shanghai (Shanghai Media Group) for doing a documentary that showed North Korea as it really is.
    No country on this planet is better at covering things up than the People’s Republic of China. Spelunker was at the forefront of Internet sleuths who exposed the underage Chinese female gymnasts at last year’s Beijing Olympics using undeleted caches of Chinese news articles. Yet despite my diligent efforts to stick China’s nose in it, the scandal lost steam and the IOC finally acquiesced.

    Did Tom O’Neill confirm that Pastor Chun Ki-won’s “top guide” mentioned in the Feb. 2009 National Geographic article is the same one that was employed in March by Current TV’s crew?
    I would assume Lisa Ling would still have a complimentary subscription to NG after her “Inside North Korea” work and might have brought that article to her sister’s attention:

    LAURA: “Li-‘, this is Laura! I’m in Seoul airport now and we’re getting ready to go to China. Euna says Pastor Chun Ki-won is giving us his TOP GUIDE; is that cool or what?”

    LISA: “Hey Laura! Tsup? You know I was just reading an article in last month’s National Geographic that says Pastor Chun’s top guide is a former smuggler!”

    LAURA: “No way! Really? Well I hope my kim chee breath will keep us out of danger! Gotta go now, luv ya bye!”

  2. Spelunker says:

    Yes, I do recall that interview. Thanks for posting the link again.

    Now I think we have two sides of the story for comparison. The North Korean government presented their version of events first, which includes a videotape of Laura and Euna narrating their own trespassing and a souvenir stone. Laura and Euna did not deny the souvenir stone in their editorial, but perhaps they did not deem it worth mentioning even to say that the pocketed rock anecdote was false.

    The point I’m making is essentially this: what would motivate a North Korean sentry to admit he was tipped off in advance either directly or indirectly? I think the version North Koreans want us to believe is that the guide had nothing to do with it. Are they not trying to protect their “associate”, who everybody knows was in China’s police custody at the time of Nambuk’s story?

    I’ve had time to ponder how foolish this caper was. All the satellite imagery analysis of Tumen River sandbars was thrown away in a snap yesterday like broken disposable chopsticks.
    I still can’t beleive they went all the way across the Tumen River to the opposite bank thinking they were going to conduct an interview with North Korean smugglers.
    If the North Korean smugglers can go both ways with such ease, then why not do the interview on China’s territory near Mapai village in exchange for a token reward, like Current TV T-shirts?. (I don’t believe I just typed that!)

    I have to stop using my extreme rationalist mind to psycho-analyze the thoughts of these 2 women.
    It frustrates me when I try to see their point of view when reading the editorial. I really wanted to know what Laura and Euna were thinking with regard to intent, and their story of the circumstances just slaps my brain like a taekwando kick.

    • liberatelaura says:

      I go back to the February Chinese intelligence relayed to a (temporarily) detained missionary, e.g. that word along the border line was that North Korea was on the lookout for a “western journalist prize.”

      Assuming Kim Seong-chol is the kind of guy who is plugged in to this sort of info, what if HE at the last minute decided on a whim to lead them to a more chance-of-being-captured spot, and hooted the way smugglers do when communicating, thinking perhaps that could help tip off any sentries to presence of people?

      Just another theory until the guide is if-ever heard from, but maybe he turncoated at the last minute…

  3. Spelunker says:

    Yes, and then there was that Chosun Ilbo article from March 20 that quoted Tim Peters hearing about North Korean sentries stepping across the border onto Chinese soil to apprehend people who look like journalists:

    Tim Peters, a Seoul-based Christian activist who works for the welfare of North Korean refugees and women trafficked across the Chinese border, says he was in the same Tumen River area two weeks ago with a small video camera when Chinese police pulled him aside. “One of the things they said, and it is interesting, and I thought they were totally exaggerating, was, ‘you know, if you are traveling alone, you know the North Koreans will occasionally come across and grab someone that they think is a journalist,'” said Peters.

    I’ve also got this gem in my archives, from venerable veteran New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof:

    A couple of years ago, I set up an interview with a trafficker in that border area, but then backed out when he demanded money; the traffickers may realize that the people to demand money from aren’t the journalists but the North Korean officials. And at a time of crisis, when it is undergoing a leadership transition and a confrontation with the West, North Korea would probably pay well for a few extra bargaining chips in the form of American journalists.

    • liberatelaura says:

      It makes me wonder (briefly, and perversely) how much North Korea would actually be willing to pay for a Laura Ling and a Euna Lee…

      And again as I have Tweeted before, if indeed Ling and Lee were human trafficked while reporting on a story about human trafficking, then they didn’t have the luck of the Irish on that St. Patrick’s day. They had the luck of the North Koreans.

  4. Spelunker says:

    In this case, as I have comically noted before, it’s smart not to use their names. Euna Lee is worth more when introduced as “an American journalist born in South Korea” and Laura’s value skyrockets when she is referred to as “the sister of Lisa Ling”. As for Mitch, it’s best to include the name “Al Gore” in his introduction and utilize his business card title of “executive producer” rather than the more functional term “cameraman”.
    All together I would price that package at around the equivalent of a luxury Italian yacht,
    which likely dropped down to South Korean fishing boat after Mitch escaped. Still, it’s enough to bail the guide out of jail and live comfortably in China.

    Human trafficked while reporting on human trafficking is spot on; just like asking a former smuggler to smuggle Current reporters across the frozen river to interview current smugglers.

    • liberatelaura says:

      You really think Koss was worth that much to them?

      I think as long as Lisa Ling’s sister is in the equation, Kim Seong-chol’s retirement package remains high.

  5. adamcathcart says:

    I have a new and somewhat sprawling post on this entire fiasco and the recent editorial; the post includes some perhaps valuable information, including the Chinese response:

  6. Bart says:

    Well, I can’t say that the op-ed cleared everything or indeed, anything up. We know that Euna is religious (and that’s a lame recommendation for dragging her out on this assignment), that Mitch Koss runs pretty fast for a guy in his 50s, and that Laura is blameless in all things.

    • liberatelaura says:

      If all had gone according to plan, @current’s decision to send an inexperienced producer-editor on her first overseas assignment because she speaks Korean would have gone unnoticed.

      But because of what happened, and assuming Euna will bear deeper psychological scars, the network’s decision may have been crucial. A local translator hire might have meant that it was Koss next to Ling across the border, not Lee, running alongside her and dragging her back to safety somehow.

  7. adamcathcart says:

    As the fulsome Kim Jong-suk once said to Kim Il Sung after praising her son’s schoolwork: “Oops, I did it again.”

    Here’s my newest analysis of just what in the dickens the Ling/Lee op-ed/propaganda piece really portends, with two fresh conspiracy theories thrown in for good measure:

    • liberatelaura says:

      As per my Tweet, people need to be reminded that the “Dear Leader” was within 10 KM of Ling-Lee capture spot a month before, urging for greater border security control.

      However you say “Yikes!” in Korean…

  8. Spelunker says:

    Here is an interesting comment from the Chinese version of Daily NK; this is from a commenter who goes by the name of 中国权威 in the forum beneath the article:

    说老实话,这类人只要带着中国的身份证或护照,即使是假的,也不会被朝鲜扣押。 2009-09-04 04:42:01

    “To tell the truth, these people only had to bring along a fake identification card or passport of China and they would not have been arrested by North Korea.”

    I agree in part; a fake China ID card would have been a good idea but not a passport. Chinese citizens would not be carrying passports along the Tumen River border area and a fake China passport is too difficult to acquire anyway.

    Of course there are several suggestions that could be made for future foreign TV crews; don’t hire an ethnic Korean local guide would be at the top of my list. Wear Chinese police or military clothing, like the guide did, in order to appear as if you belong in that area.

    I could go on, but I want to plunge back in to Chinese media and see what I can find regarding the territorial dispute. China says the editorial is wrong in claiming Laura and Euna were dragged from Chinese soil by North Koreans. I’m going to read some Chinese news blogs and search for sources.

    • liberatelaura says:

      Yes, I actually made that same point early on about carrying fake ID cards (though again, if it was a last minute-whim excursion, it would preclude that sort of preparation).

      Big question: what is China basing its claim that Ling-Lee did not step back onto Chinese soil before being apprehended on… Mitch Koss camera footage? Or are we talking highly questionable eyewitness(es)?

  9. Laura takes full responsibility in this May 21, 2010 Sacramento Bee piece re: the possibility that she was set up by the guide…

    “In retrospect, some of his actions seem suspicious, but it was my decision to follow him and set foot on North Korean soil.”

  10. Spelunker says:

    Isn’t that a statement of intent? (It was my decision to follow him and set foot on NK soil) Finally we get an interview without Laura and Lisa’s previous perpetual media mantra:
    “It was never our intention when we were there that morning to cross the [Tumen] River”


    If they were there just to film the terrain, as Laura claimed on Larry King’s show, then it would not have been necessary to bring the hired guide. A simple car and driver could have taken them to Tumen or Yueqing or Mapai or anywhere along the Chinese shoreline without setting foot on the ice. They were scheduled to go to Dandong that morning anyway.

    But noooooooooo… Laura had to bring along a so-called “fixer”. Why? So he could hoot for his North Korean buddies as they crossed the entire width of the river to the opposite shore. That’s exactly what Laura told NPR: “And so, in my mind, I thought he was trying to make a connection with some of the border guards that he knew.”

    Therefore it is very clear to me that the intent all along was to cross the river and try to interview North Korean sentries. If Laura had contacted Lisa before departing Yanji, then I suppose her sister would have vetoed such an intention.

    Here’s Lisa’s response during the NPR interview:

    “I got a call at 2:30 in the morning on March 17 from my brother-in-law, Laura’s husband, Ian. And he said, ‘Laura has been abducted by North Korean border guards.’ And that just sent a complete shock through my system because Laura — there was never any intention to go anywhere near North Korea. Their assignment was to go to China and South Korea, so we were shocked. I knew the story they were covering, but I didn’t think they were going to get close to North Korea.”

    Lisa knew the assignment was to go to the innocuous city of Yanji to interview defectors, not visit the actual Tumen River at a remote dangerous area. Instead of Tweeting about foot massages perhaps Laura should have consulted her sister about getting near the actual border or even the thought about crossing it. Lisa certainly would have voiced or texted her wise disapproval if she only knew Laura’s true intentions, in my humble opinion.

  11. Well, per Nambuk Story item above, we can assume NK guards were not in on it.

    As far as Laura and the guide crossing in hopes that morning of finding and convincing an NK guard or two to speak w/Current, as the guide unbelievably told Ling beforehand (per @nprfreshair interview) he had done previously with other journalists, maybe. But lack of any pre-exisiting proof that guide has ever been able to pull that off casts doubts on his deliver-the-guard(s) statement.

  12. Spelunker says:

    Laura owns it (the decision to cross the Tumen river) in an interview with CNN’s Rick Sanchez on May 21, 2010:

    “It was my decision; ultimately at the end of the day I made that decision…”

  13. Spelunker says:

    Laura speculates about the guide immediately after stating again on a Los Angeles local TV station that she does not like to speculate:

    (2:50) “I don’t like to speculate …I feel he might have just been wanting to show us some really great stuff!”

    Some really great stuff, eh Laura? You decided to follow the guide all the way across the Tumen River to North Korea’s shore because you felt there might be some REALLY GREAT STUFF over there. That’s…uh… really great! I truly appreciate you sharing the nature of your intention with us on the local Los Angeles TV station. That was indeed some really great stuff!

  14. Recently, via a well connected follower, I have been told that one of the China-NK border chatter rumors is that Laura, Euna and Mitch Koss may have been set up by a higher power than the guide.

    Spelunker, since you know the region and how it works, any thoughts on how such a scenario might have gone down? Although Durihana claimed to have told Euna Lee via telephone NOT to go to the border beforehand, this apparently never happened. Was just Durihana covering its blank.

    A larger conspiracy theory than that of the guide certainly opens some new possibilities.

  15. Spelunker says:

    The guide was hired in January of 2009, so he could have been connecting with his North Korean associates long before Current TV’s crew arrived in Yanji (March 2009). There was sufficient time to set something up and the scheme did not necessarily require involving specific border sentries. Keep in mind that the remote location was likely chosen not only for its proximity to the North Korean military camp but also for the lack of patrols on the Chinese side of the Tumen.

    Shall we pin the tail on Durihana’s donkey? Why would they sabotage their own China operations? That seems highly unlikely and not very Christian. I still believe Reverend Chun when he told Euna not to go near the dangerous border area at the Tumen River itself. Who is denying that phone call occured?

    I am more inclined to believe that the guide is solely responsible and that a reward was likely negotiated. All he had to do was persuade Current TV’s crew to follow him across the river and he performed that task successfully, with the alleged promise of “really great stuff” being the carrot on a stick worth its weight in gold.

    • One of the two authors of Somewhere Inside told me a cell phone warning to Euna Lee, to not to go anywhere near the NK-China border, was never communicated by Durihana as claimed. (Will be really interesting to read the separate Euna POV account of March 17th, 2009 when her book comes out in September.)

      Overall, I think if anything, perhaps the conspiracy chatter ties in to that larger idea of NK being on lookout from early on in 2009 for a border prize person(s) and relaying that to anyone (like the Ling-Lee guide) who cared to listen.

      • Spelunker says:

        Based on the fact that he was hired in January 2009 it is not unreasonable to assume that the inscrutable unscrupulous guide leaked word of Current TV’s March plans to North Korean associates as soon as he found out who he would be guiding.

        There remains other disturbing questions however if we pursue this angle. If the guide planned to entrap the Current TV crew from the beginning, then would he have also compromised the security of the defectors/refugees who were interviewed in Yanji? China’s public security detained the guide and could have obtained plenty of information during his lengthy internment.
        The independent testimony of Mitch Koss would attest to whether the Chinese authorities squeezed critical confidential data from him or from the guide.

  16. coty07 says:

    There has always been speculation that Laura Ling was specifically targeted because of Lisa’s documentary. It is a far-fetched idea, but I believe it is possible. After all, the guide could have sold out other journalists he fixed for.

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