A US diplomat in Seoul has shocked a group of visiting Congressional staff members by allegedly making highly insensitive comments about two journalists — Taiwanese-American Laura Ling (凌志美) and Korean-American Euna Lee — now facing serious criminal charges in North Korea.
William Stanton, deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in South Korea and a candidate for the next director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), is said to have told the visitors during a briefing that the two young journalists were “stupid” and that their case was “distracting from bigger issues.”
Congressional sources said most of the nine visitors — all in their 20s and on a training trip to Asia — were particularly distressed because both Ling and Lee could be sentenced to long prison terms and there is strong evidence they did nothing wrong.
At least one of the visitors was so upset about Stanton's attitude that he wrote a memorandum to a member of Congress giving full details of the briefing, including Stanton's statements.
The memorandum has become a topic of hot discussion among senior Congressional staff and a copy has been sent to the US State Department. No officials would comment on the situation last night and it is not known if it will lead to a formal inquiry.
While the Taipei Times has not received a copy of the memorandum, a senior Congressional staff member read directly from it over the telephone.
A second source later confirmed that the memorandum was being widely discussed.
Stanton's briefing took place on either April 7 or April 8 — the two journalists were detained on March 17 — and according to the memorandum, he did not appear to be concerned that the young visitors were openly taking notes of what he said.
The visiting young Congressional staffers said that Stanton did not request confidentiality or indicate that he was speaking privately or off the record.
This is the second time that complaints about Stanton's behavior have gone to his superiors at the US State Department.
While Stanton has not been formally appointed, he is believed to be at the top of the short list for AIT director.
As the Taipei Times reported late last month, Stanton would be a controversial choice because of allegations that when he worked at the US embassy in Beijing in the mid-1990s, he was known for his strong support for Chinese policies and impeded internal reports critical of the Chinese regime.
Congressional sources said they feared that he would not look after Taiwan's interests but would be inclined to favor the Chinese side when reporting back to Washington.
The State Department is deeply concerned about the two female journalists, both in their 20s, who were taken into custody by North Korean border guards patrolling the Tumen River along that country's border with China.
Pyongyang officials said in a statement on March 22: “Two Americans were detained on March 17 while illegally intruding into the territory of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] by crossing the DPRK-China border. A competent organ is now investigating the case.”
Ling and Lee work for the San Francisco-based online news outlet Current TV, which was founded by former US vice president Al Gore and tycoon Joel Hyatt.
The two women were in the area to interview refugees who had fled North Korea and were living on the Chinese side of the border.
There is evidence that the North Korean guards crossed the river and grabbed the women on the Chinese side, forcing them into North Korea at gunpoint.
In a statement this week, North Korea said the women would be charged with “hostile acts” and would go on trial at some unspecified time in the future.
This comes amid mounting diplomatic tensions between Pyongyang and the international community, including the US, over its rogue nuclear program.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said in an interview, that the Americans had become another “negotiating chip” for Pyongyang as it embarks on negotiations with Washington and its allies over the nuclear impasse.
There is fear that North Korea might stage a show trial and sentence the two women to as much as ten years in a hard labor prison.
The Ling family emigrated from Taiwan to the US several years ago and now lives in Los Angeles.
Laura Ling's older sister, Lisa Ling, a former co-host of the US TV talk show The View and now a correspondent for National Geographic Channel's Explorer, has refused to comment.
It is understood that the families of both women have been advised by the State Department to keep low profiles and not to talk about the case.