Tue, Aug 25, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Did the jailed US journalists blow the cover of their informants?

By Choe Sang-hun  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SEOUL

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the two US journalists released after nearly five months in North Korean custody, have been widely portrayed at home as victims of unduly harsh punishment by a repressive government for simply doing their job.

But here in South Korea, human rights advocates, bloggers and Christian pastors are accusing them of needlessly endangering the very people they tried to cover: North Korean refugees and the activists who help them.

The accusations stem from a central fear repeated in newspapers and blogs in South Korea: that the notes and videotapes the journalists gathered in China before their ill-fated venture to the border fell into the hands of the authorities, potentially compromising the identities of refugees and activists dedicated to spiriting people out of the North.

The Reverend Lee Chan-woo, 70, a South Korean pastor, said the police raided his home in China on March 19, four days after the journalists visited and filmed a secret site where he looked after children of North Korean refugee women. He said that he was then deported in early April and that his five secret homes for refugees were shut down. The children, he said, were dispersed to family members in China, who could not afford to take care of them.

“The Chinese cited scenes from films confiscated from the journalists when they interrogated me,” Lee said.

As evidence of the ordeal, he provided documents he said the Chinese police gave him after the raid.

“The reporters visited our place with a noble cause,” he added. “I did my best to help them. But I wonder how they could be so careless in handling their tapes and notebooks. They should have known that if they were caught, they would suffer for sure, but also many others would be hurt because of them.”

The Reverend Chun Ki-won, chief pastor of the Durihana Mission that Lee works with, said that two of the women interviewed by the journalists fled China after being told about the arrests because they were frightened of being repatriated to North Korea and put in labor camps. Another interviewee was still on the run in China, he said.

“We could not find out whether they filmed any other refugees we don’t know of,” Chun said. “If that’s the case, we have to find them, provided it’s not too late already. But the American reporters are not talking to us.”

Many elements of Laura Ling and Euna Lee’s reporting trip remain shrouded in mystery. Neither their employer, Current TV, nor the journalists themselves have revealed details of their work or the circumstances under which they were captured.

Ling and Lee were arrested by North Korean soldiers on March 17, while their cameraman, Mitch Koss, and their guide were reported to have been detained by the Chinese authorities after fleeing.

Brent Marcus, a spokesman for Current TV, said: “We’re concerned about the situation that has evolved with Lee Chan-woo and the Durihana Mission.”

But he said “many of the details” in the pastors’ accounts were “not correct.” When Lee and Ling have recovered enough to tell their story, he said, it will differ from the pastors’ versions.

E-mail messages to Lee and a representative who has been handling public relations for the reporters’ families were not answered.

According to Durihana, the Current TV crew met with Chun, the chief pastor, in Seoul on March 13, asking for help covering the plight of North Korean refugees in China. Chun said he put them in touch with Lee Chan-woo and a Korean guide in China.

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