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Korean Activist Warned Detained Reporters Not to Cross Border

New America Media, News Report, Peter Schurmann & Aruna Lee Posted: Mar 26, 2009

Editors Note: A South Korean activist who had been in regular contact with the two Current TV journalists until they were detained by North Koreans claims he warned them against taking undue risks. Meanwhile, North Korea experts fear the two will become a bargaining chip for Pyongyang which is getting ready for an April rocket launch, write NAM contributors Peter Schurmann and Aruna Lee.

SEOUL, South Korea -- Two American journalists detained by North Korea last week and reportedly being held in the capital Pyongyang ignored warnings about the area they were documenting, an activist who helped arrange their trip said.

The Rev. Chun Ki-won said he urged Laura Ling and Euna Lee not to venture into North Korean territory and pressed them to go to another area farther south along the Chinese border that was deemed less risky. I informed them not to go near the border, Chun told New America Media, but they did not listen.

The two women contacted Chun, whose Durihana Mission in South Korea has for years worked to help North Korean refugees flee their impoverished homeland, to arrange meetings with North Koreans living in border towns in China. Chun, who said he had been in daily contact with the reporters until their March 17 detention, speculated that their Chinese guide may have led them across the border with the promise of exclusive footage.

The Tumen River, which runs along the border with China and is frozen at this time of year, is easily crossed but Chun said it is difficult to determine where exactly the demarcation line between the two countries is.

A cameraman, Mitch Koss, managed to escape and has already left China, its Foreign Ministry said Tuesday. The three journalists were reporting for San Francisco-based Internet news site Current TV, founded by former Vice President Al Gore. The detention of the two reporters comes as tension on the Korean peninsula mounts over a planned rocket launch by North Korea in early April. Pyongyang insists the rocket is intended to place a communications satellite into orbit, a claim Seoul and Washington dismiss as a cover for a ballistic missile launch.

NBC News reported Tuesday that North Korea has already placed the rocket on its launch pad located on the countrys east coast. The United States and its allies have suggested that they may attempt to intercept the rocket, while Beijing and Moscow are taking a wait-and-see approach. Pyongyang has threatened war if the rocket is intercepted, while Seoul has dispatched a destroyer to waters near the launch site to monitor activity there.

The U.S. State Department declined to comment on steps being taken to secure the release of the journalists. Spokesman Robert Wood has described the case as very sensitive, but on Tuesday backed away from earlier statements acknowledging reports the two were being charged with espionage, a felony that could carry a 20 year prison sentence. We are in touch with the DPRK through various channels, and the only statement that the DPRK has made to us says only that the DPRK believes that the two journalists crossed the DPRK border illegally, Wood said. DPRK is the acronym for the Norths official name, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. According to the San Francisco newspaper SF Weekly, Current TV is still not commenting on the situation.

Andrei Lankov, professor of North Korean studies at Seouls Kookmin University, said the North will certainly use the issue to its advantage. In an email to New America Media, Lankov said authorities there will hold the two reporters as an object lesson for other journalists working in the region.

They will try to teach foreigners, especially foreign journalists, a lesson. Such unauthorized intrusions into a national territory would not be welcomed by any state, and the North Koreans might worry about the increasing frequency of such incidents, Lankov said, noting a Japanese crew that recently ventured into North Korean territory before escaping back into China. I would expect that they will try to make a bit of show of those two journalists.

Lankov also suggested that the North may hold on to the two for many months as a bargaining chip for direct bilateral discussions with Washington, with a show trial followed by their release as a gesture of good will.

Another major concern is that the journalists could reveal information on activists and defectors in the area, jeopardizing their work and the safety of family members still in the North. According to South Korean media, the two are undergoing interrogation at a guest house outside Pyongyang. Though the State Department said that theyve been assured by the North that the reporters will be treated well, the fear is that they could be pressured to provide the identities of those with whom theyve had contact.

Rev. Chun said hes been in touch with refugees interviewed by the reporters who say that they are safe for now. While he said he does not regret assisting Ling and Lee, he noted that their arrest could make journalists more cautious about covering the border area. He added, however, that the case will likely bring renewed attention to the plight of North Korean refugees.

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