Sunday, August 23, 2009

Freed U.S. Journalists Come Under Harsh Criticism in Seoul

The New York Times reports that while Laura Ling and Euna Lee have been widely portrayed at home as victims of unduly harsh punishment by a repressive government, 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 here: 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 Rev. Lee Chan-woo, 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. “The reporters visited our place with a noble cause. 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 Rev. Chun Ki-won, the chief pastor of the Durihana Mission that Mr. Lee works with, said that two of the women interviewed by the American journalists fled China after being told about the arrests, frightened of being repatriated to North Korea and put in labor camps. Another interviewee was still on the run in China, he said.

On March 15, the American crew met Mr. Lee in Yanji, a Chinese town near the northeastern border with North Korea, he said, but seeming lapses in security bothered him. For one, he said, they called his home telephone in Yanji — a serious breach of protocol for activists who operate under the constant fear of being monitored by the Chinese police.

Mr. Lee said the crew asked to visit one of five secret homes where he looked after 20 North Korean children, ages 5 to 13. Mr. Lee said he first asked the journalists not to film the children. When they assured him that they would obscure parts of the footage, like faces, Mr. Lee said he relaxed a bit. “After they left,” he said, “the children told me excitedly about being filmed.”

In South Korea, where the dangers of the China-North Korea border zone are well known, the American journalists’ venture has been criticized by many as foolhardy.

“We can assume that the journalists’ guide compromised every source,” said Joo Sung-ha, a North Korean defector who works in Seoul as a newspaper reporter. “Since their return,” he added, “they haven’t said a peep about the fate of the people they have endangered, though unintentionally.”

One human rights official in Seoul, who makes frequent excursions to China to interview North Korean refugees and whose work requires anonymity, complained: “I had to suspend my own trips and work in China because of the tension” created by the episode.

Brent Marcus, a spokesman for Current TV, said “many of the details” in the pastors’ accounts were “not correct.” When Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling have recovered enough to tell their story, he said, it will differ from the pastors’ versions.

The activists, missionaries and smugglers who help shuttle people out of North Korea have moved about 20,000 North Korean refugees through China, mostly to South Korea.

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