American Journalists Convicted in N. Korea

Two U.S. journalists, arrested in North Korea, have been found guilty of crimes against the communist nation. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp. Video by AP
Bob Dietz
Asia Program Coordinator, Committee to Protect Journalists
Monday, June 8, 2009; 1:00 PM

A North Korean court sentenced two U.S. journalists to 12 years in a labor camp Monday, as the government of Kim Jong Il continued to ratchet up tension with the United States and its neighbors.

Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, was online Monday, June 8 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the sentencing, reaction from the West and what measures are being undertaken to negotiate the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, journalists with Al Gore's Current TV Web site.


Washington, D.C.: It seems that this case was very low-profile for awhile, which is surprising given that the reporters were working for a station owned by Al Gore, and their relationship to Lisa Ling. Is this due to the sensitive nature of negotiating with North Korea, or do you think less attention has been paid because they are Asian American?

Bob Dietz: Thanks for the question. The family kept their response low key at the request of the State Department. They went public last Monday, June 1, as the trial drew closer They wanted to make a direct appeal to the North Korean government, from the family to them. Surprisingly, this is the way many of these cases go --- the first response isn't always shout as loudly as you can, but see if there is some way to fix this quietly.


Bethesda, Md.: Bob, Are organizations like yours taking any action on this? How about similar stories about journalists arrested/being held captive? What is being done by groups that are supposed to be protecting journalists?

Bob Dietz: There's been a fairly large range of response from us and other groups. The family has led the way in tempering those responses, and we're all following their lead. But North Korea doesn't really respond to the same sort of pressure that other countries might --- see the Roxana Sabreri case in Iran. The family has told us they really appreciate of the grass-roots demonstraions that have been taking place, they find them reassuring. And there is a Facebook page that is growing rapidly. Here's the url:


Arlington, Va.: Because they were working for Al Gore's Current TV, has he made any statements or actions to obtain their release?

Bob Dietz: He's made several statements and has been in regular contact with the family. No one at the State Department is talking very openly, but the impression I get is that he is involved in the case.

_______________________ Detained In North Korea : Journalist Laura Ling and Euna Lee, please help. (Facebook)


Smolenskaya, Vienna: Lost in all the reporting on this matter is a precise description of what exactly the two reporters were in violation of in this case. What are the exact charges against the two of them? Were they in N. Korea territory at the time?

Bob Dietz: They were charged and tried for illegally entering North Korea and unspecified "hostile acts" --- which is what they were found guilty of, according to the official Korean Central News Agency. It MIGHT be reassuring that they were not convicted of espionage, and the charge was never raised by the government.


Rockville, Md.: Thank you for taking questions. What, if any, leverage does the United States have in seeking the release of these journalists? Does the U.S. government have a history of involving itself in such negotiations or is that left to families and news organizations?

Bob Dietz: I think the U.S. is using whatever back channels it has to try to work around the issue of the fate of Euna and Laura, but at the same time sending a hard response around the other issues on the Korean Peninsula. In the past the U.S. has been able to get people out, but the weapons testing --- the missiles and the nuclear detonations --- and the issue of the succession to Kim Jong Il have made it more difficult. The State Dept's challenge is to separate all the other geopolitical questions from the humanitarian questions about how these two women will be allowed to return home. It's a challenge


Fairfax, Va.: How likely is it that they'll be released? The sentencing sounds so harsh and official. How will this be dismissed through negotiations between the U.S. and N. Korea?

Bob Dietz: It's foolhardy to make a prediction, but there are precedents from the past. In 1996, Gov Bill Richardson was able to get a U.S. citizen, Evan Hunziker, released relatively quickly--- that's why Richardson's name is frequently mentioned in this situation. And in 1968, the crew of a US naval vessel, the USS Pueblo, was released after 11 months. They were extremely abused, though. Tortured. The question is how quickly can the release of these two women be made to happen. And until now they have been held in a sort of hotel/guest house. They've not been free to leave, but at least they weren't being physically abused, though the family says they were clearly worried about their future.


Washington, D.C.: Did the Current TV journalists do this on their own volition or were they encouraged by the Web company to do what they did?

Bob Dietz: They went on their own--- they wanted to do the story. Before they left the US, they had told their families they would NOT try to enter North Korea. it is still not clear what happened on the day they were taken--- where they were standing, what they were doing. Laura had done plenty of gutsy stories before. This was another one of them.


Reston, Va.: What things are known about their trial? Did they have lawyers? Was it trial jury-based? Were reporters allowed to attend the trial? Was it televised? Were there confessions? What is the probability that torture was appled?

What was their need to get right up to the border between China and North Korea? Was it something like the Minutemen standing by the U.S.-Mexican border in order to catch illegals?

Bob Dietz: We know hardly anything. No foreign diplomats were allowed to attend--- the Swedish Ambassador to Pyongyang had acted as a go-between before the trial for a few visits, but he was not allowed to attend. The announcement about the start of the trial and the verdict cam in two terse statements through the official Korean Central News Agency.


Catheys Valley, Calif.: What, exactly, are these women being subjected to now, and pending release?

Bob Dietz: We don't know. before the trial they had been held in a government-run hotel. They were kept separate from each other, but in their phone calls and letters to their families --- which were of course closely monitored --- they did not say they were being abused.

I do not know where they are being held now.


Kingstowne, Va.: My question is whether or not they actually did cross the border into N. Korea? If so, it's hard to believe that it would be so easy to do. Do we have any details on how they did so? If they were instead kidnapped from China, when do we go in and get them back?

Bob Dietz: We don't know what happened when they were taken. They had told their families before they left that they would NOT try to ross into N Korea, but I haven't seen any definitive statements about what happened.


Banning, Calif.: What were the specific charges, i.e., spying, drugs, sex?

Bob Dietz: They were charged with illegally entering North Korea and unspecified "hostile acts." KCNA called it a "grave crime" when it announced the verdicts.


Lyme, Conn.: What are the dangers that international pressure may have the effect of PROVIDING validity to the North Korean government's desires to appear defiant to the rest of the world?

Bob Dietz: That's always something to consider, frankly. CPJ is following the lead of the family on this. They kept fairly strict silence until the trial date started to draw closer, and then decided to make an appeal on humanitarian basis.

CPJ has been involved in scores of these cases since 1981, when we were founded, and looking back we realize that each one of them has been different.


Washington, D.C.: Any reaction from sister Lisa Ling?

Bob Dietz: Nothing that I have seen yet. They are trying to be very measured in their response.


Laurel, Md.: I'm having difficulty understanding the outrage people are expressing toward North Korea here. Two people violated a country's border and were then arrested and convicted for doing so. This is a sad thing for the reporters and their families, but ultimately they took a risk that they were well aware existed and are now pawns in the larger political game that they inserted themselves in as players. Granted, 12 years is extremely harsh, but I wouldn't consider it a surprising reaction based on whose border was violated, especially given the nationality of the reporters who broke their law. I certainly wouldn't sneak into a foreign country and expect a kind reception if caught.

Bob Dietz: Let me end this session answering this question. Thanks to everyone for their questions:

It's not clear if they DID violate the border, and North Korea has not made any evidence available that that in fact was the case. They have been largely, but not completely, held incommunicado, and they were tried behind closed doors. Yes, they were covering a tough story, in a tough part of the world, and when you do that there are risks. CPJ sticks up for journalists around the world. When they get picked up by governments --- any governments --- there is usually some legal justification, but not always. Whether or not that is the case for Euna and Laura is still open to serious question. I think it is very hard to separate the fate of these two women from the larger geopolitical situation on the Korean penisula--- and CPJ is very concerend that they are being punihsed not for violating any North Korean laws, but because they are being used as negotiating points in the very much larger story that has been going on for more than 50 years in Korea.

Again, thanks every one for taking the time to respond to this story--- it's an important one.

You can follow what CPJ is doing, and advocating, on

And don't forget the Facebook site at

_______________________ This concludes today's discussion with Bob Dietz. Thank you for joining in.


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company