Friday, June 12, 2009

Shedding light on the "black box"

Current TV journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling were sentenced Monday to 12 years in a North Korean labor camp

The case of San Francisco-based Current TV journalists Euna Lee (a Korean-American) and Laura Ling, who were sentenced by a North Korean court earlier this week to 12 years in a labor camp for illegal entry and an unspecified "hostile" act, has been grabbing a fair amount of coverage in the South Korean press. The story has even topped reports of another disturbing detainment case involving one of the country's own, a South Korean employee of the the inter-Korean Gaeseong Industrial Complex who's been held in the North since March 30 on charges of criticizing Pyongyang and trying to lure a North Korean worker into defection.

Covering North Korea can be both professionally challenging and potentially dangerous for journalists. Scoop-seeking reporters can hardly resist the temptation to snag exclusive photos across the heavily guarded border, and those who actually work their way into the secretive state are considered the lucky few, even if they're mostly fed propaganda and presented with an inaccurately attractive view of the place. But as long as the North remains an elusive, trash-talking, rights-violating nuclear threat, people will look to journalists to provide an inside look, however narrow it may be, into Kim Jong-il's bizarre regime. Although media reports have been fact-based and offer little editorial comment about Lee and Ling's case, I've heard several comments suggesting the reporters should be punished for hindering U.S. diplomatic efforts with North Korea, if not by North Korea then by their own government. Pyongyang is widely considered to be using the Americans as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Obama administration, a tangled mess that many would agree didn't need additional knots.

This week I had the opportunity to interview someone who faces the challenges of covering North Korea on a daily basis, KBS domestic television reporter Lee Woong-soo (pictured at left). Mr. Lee's comments were included in Thursday's edition of Seoul Calling. Here's a transcript of the interview:

AR: Can you explain some challenges you face as a reporter when covering stories about North Korea?

LWS: North Korea is commonly known as the 'Black box' because it's extremely hard to gain access. This is very inconvenient for a reporter. Materials and data are also very rare. All the information we get is from either Rodong Newspaper or KRT(Korean Central News Agency), which are North Korea's own news sources. There are also North Korean defectors, but their information is very restricted and hard to verify.

AR: Do you think coverage of North Korea has changed under the Lee Myung-bak administration?

LWS: Of course it has. Not only between the North and South but also between the North Korea and America so as a whole, the news content has become fairly negative. The maintenance of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, missiles and nuclear tests, to name a few. It seems as if this state will continue for some time now. Regarding the past, diplomatic conversation almost always followed extreme circumstances, so hopefully, this tension will soon ease.

AR: As a reporter, do you find it frustrating to cover stories about a secretive nation?

LWS: As I've mentioned earlier, North Korea is a strictly controlled nation. It not only controls the citizens but also the flow of information, both in and out. No other country can match their system of control. North Korea only reveals information that works in their favour. Besides, The North's and South's relationship has worsened recently so it's even harder to gain access. North Korean related materials are difficult to verify so if anything happens in the North we feel extremely trapped.

AR: What do you think the South Korean people want to know about North Korea?

LWS: South Koreans want to know a lot about North Korea. Almost everything, to be clear. They want to know the North's way of thinking, and living. Because North Korean problems have a great political, economical, and social influence on the South and because of the belief that one day we will unite as one whole nation. The issue of the day might be the North Korean regime, or in other words, the destiny of Kim Jong-il's regime.

AR: Do you think journalists who cover North Korea have a responsibility to avoid dangerous situations that may impact their country’s diplomatic efforts with the North?

LWS: I think so, yes. The media should work towards keeping an eye on National Policy and informing the public, but not towards hurting national interests. Of course national interests should be differed from interests of the regime. Diplomatic issues are often [dealt with] in privacy. Especially the North. So the media should find a means of balance between the public's right to know and protecting national interests. Neither slanting towards the other. It's a very sensitive issue, like walking on a tightrope.


Anonymous said...

Abby, Thank you so much for your research into this. It is so unfortunate. If we don't wee these women, in the next couple of weeks, well... Kim Jung-il is simply a puppet of China. It seems whenever China is up to something, they wind up little Kim, and send him out to do something stupid to distract journalists. This is the worst I've ever seen him -- and this certainly does not lesson the dangers to the South, and Japan. In 1999 I was at KoBA. My sponsor told me his senior wanted to take me to dinner. It turns out, this is his father. He told in the early 1950s of his family dividing the family and sending half north and half south, because they didn't know which side would win. He hadn't seen his brothers in 50 years. You have no idea how many times, my wife has had to rescue the PC when I'm reading stories about the train, on the KBS World page. My God how many lives this moron Kim has ruined.
Vic in Long Beach, CA

Vicky said...

Hello Abby,

Mr. Lee's words "The media should work towards keeping an eye on National Policy and informing the public, but not towards hurting national interests."

We must consider both parties rights.

Thank you for posting.

Jing said...

I pity these people. Thanks for sharing. I couldn't understand North Korean government.

Hoon said...

abby! it's hoon. what on earth are you up to these days!? i apologize for not meetin up with you and cindy during my break.. :( i feel really bad about it. please forgive me.

lemme know about what's goin on in your life :)

Anonymous said...

abby, do you and your co-anchor get along well? do you ever feel like punching her sometimes? :)

Vic in Long Beach said...

From APF via Yahoo 09-July-2009

Thu Jul 9, 8:44 am ET

WASHINGTON (AFP) – One of the two US reporters jailed in North Korea made a telephone call to her US-based sister, Lisa Ling said in an interview broadcast on Thursday.

"It was a tremendous relief to hear Laura's voice last night," Lisa Ling told CNN affiliate KOVR in California.

"It was only the first time I have heard her voice in weeks," she said, adding the call was made late Tuesday.

"That silence has been just so terrifying and deafening."

Border guards detained American TV reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee on March 17 along the frontier with China while they were researching a story about refugees fleeing North Korea.

A court on June 8 sentenced Ling, 32, and Lee, 36, to 12 years of "reform through labor" for an illegal border crossing and an unspecified "grave crime."

Laura Ling "was very specific about the message she was communicating and she said, 'look, we violated North Korean law and we need our government to help us. We're sorry about everything that happened but now we need diplomacy," Lisa Ling told KOVR.

Without actually seeing her sister "and without people actually seeing her physically, it's very difficult to tell" how she is doing in prison, Lisa Ling said.

The jailed US reporters worked for San Francisco, California-based Current TV, a venture supported by former US vice president Al Gore.

US officials led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have appealed to Pyongyang for clemency on humanitarian grounds and said the case should not be linked to the ongoing nuclear standoff.

Relations between North Korea and the US and its allies are at their worst for years.

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Vic in Long Beach, CA said...

This headline just in from Drudge:


No details, yet.

Vic in Long Beach, CA

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