Spy versus spy in Iran, North Korea

Posted in United States , Iran , Koreas | 21-Apr-09 | Author: Donald Kirk| Source: Asia Times

South Korean protesters shout slogans as they hold pictures of two American journalists Euna Lee, right, and Laura Ling, left, during a rally against North Korea in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 2, 2009.

SEOUL - The case of the American freelance journalist sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran for spying for the United States has a disquieting relevance to the dangers facing two American journalists held at the other end of former United States president George W Bush's "axis of evil" - North Korea.

While Roxana Saberi, 31, appeals her weekend conviction in Tehran after an in-camera trial that lasted one day, the two Americans, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, seized by North Korean soldiers on March 17, are in a "state guest house" near the capital Pyongyang on charges of "hostile acts", including espionage.

They were on China's northeastern Tumen River border with North Korea filming for former US vice president and environmental activist Al Gore's Current TV network on an especially sensitive topic - the flight of North Korean defectors from the horrors of starvation, disease, jailing, torture and beatings.

United States President Barack Obama said he was "gravely disappointed" over the sentence meted out to Saberi. The issue now is whether an appeals court will significantly reduce or suspend the sentence - or even throw out the conviction. Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad even wrote to the prosecutor, requesting that she and a Canadian blogger have the chance to "freely and legally defend themselves" - and possibly win a reprieve.

Saberi and the blogger share an Iranian heritage. Saberi's father, Rezi, is Iranian and is now in Tehran to try to bring his daughter back to the home in North Dakota that she left six years ago to report from Tehran. The blogger, Hossein Derakhshan, born, raised and educated in Iran before moving to London and Toronto, was operating a pioneering website until his arrest in November. He, too, faces charges of espionage - in his case, spying for Israel, which he visited in 2007 in a highly publicized bid for Iran-Israel reconciliation.

The parallels between the case of Saberi and that of Ling and Lee may be obvious, so much so that the US State Department, working behind the scenes, hopes the North Koreans will see the benefits of letting them go. If North Korean authorities insist on a trial at which Ling and Lee will inevitably be convicted and sentenced, Obama may be expected to issue a similar statement of disappointment.

The coincidence between the jailing of these three American broadcast journalists who were by all accounts in aggressive pursuit of exclusive stories, goes to the larger issue of the nuclear programs of both Iran and North Korea - and their cooperation with each other.

Saberi was interested in Iran's nuclear program, which the US charges has military implications well beyond the peaceful uses claimed by Iran. Ling and Lee were not necessarily going to report on North Korea's program, linked to that of Iran through exchanges of technology and the sale of North Korean Scud and Rodong missiles, but North Korean authorities can make up any story they want about what they were doing. Unlike Iran, they've manufactured nuclear warheads and vow to go on doing so now that the United Nations Security Council has condemned their launch of the long-range Taepodong-2 missile on April 5.

The cases, however, have highly disturbing differences. Iran may seem like a forbidding place, to judge from reports of what's happening to Saberi, but it's a free and open society compared to North Korea.

While Saberi's father remains in Tehran, pleading on his daughter's behalf with Iranian officials, diplomats and journalists, the parents of Laura Ling, of Chinese ancestry, and Euna Lee, Korean-American, are not able to see their daughters. Nor do Ling and Lee have a loquacious lawyer, as does Saberi, appearing on TV, arguing their case.

In Tehran, as in Pyongyang, the US relies on diplomats from other countries to visit US citizens in jail in the absence of diplomatic relations with either Iran or North Korea. Swiss diplomats have seen Saberi behind bars in Tehran, and a Swedish diplomat has visited Ling and Lee at the "guest house", as it's described, near Pyongyang.

Unlike Saberi, Ling and Lee are not believed to have had any other foreign visitors, certainly not their parents. North Korean authorities like to say they are following all the rules of diplomacy in dealing with criminal cases, but that single conversation that each of them has had with the Swede is the only chance they've had to get a message through to anyone on their side.

Another enormous difference is that Ling and Lee had not spent years reporting from inside North Korea, as had Saberi - they had never been there until the guards detained them.

Whether they had actually stepped across the line in the Tumen River, frozen solid when they were picked up, is not clear. They were with a Chinese-Korean guide who is suspected of having been informing for the North Koreans and to have put them into the hands of North Korean soldiers after bringing them to the river bank on the lure of exclusive TV footage. It's also not clear what happened to the guide, whether he got away from the North Koreans or was also detained. In any case, he's believed now to be in Pyongyang.

One person does know what happened - or as much as he could tell from having been a part of the incident. That's cameraman and producer Mitch Koss, who was with Ling and Lee and escaped. He was arrested by the Chinese, but has left China, probably for San Francisco, the home of Current TV, an Internet-based operation.

To judge from Koss' silence, he has been told in no uncertain terms to keep his mouth shut while negotiators try to spring Ling and Lee. It's assumed, if and when he does talk, that he will be able to clarify how the guide led them into what appears to be a trap and exactly where everyone was standing.

It would not be correct, however, to think that Ling and Lee were not well briefed beforehand on the horrors of life in North Korea - or the risks they were taking by venturing down to the bank of the Tumen River, a shallow stream that defectors can cross by foot whether it is frozen or not. Nor did they rely solely on interviews with South Korean defectors, arranged through a South Korean non-governmental group called Durihana, whose leader, the Reverend Chun Ki-won, was imprisoned for 10 months in China years ago for trying to help defectors escape to Mongolia.

Ling, at the age of 32, was following in the footsteps of her older sister, 36-year-old Lisa Ling, who's gained celebrity status as a far-ranging reporter for Oprah and National Geographic television. Lisa may well have encouraged Laura on her North Korean documentary after having scored one of her greatest coups three years ago with an epic "Inside North Korea" for National Geographic.

Some of Lisa's dialogue in that extraordinary piece of reporting was eerily prophetic of the ordeal now confronting her younger sister. As she said near the opening, "North Korea is the most terrifying country on Earth."

Lisa in the documentary shows how she filmed on a skillfully hidden camera while posing as a volunteer for a Nepalese eye doctor who went to North Korea to cure hundreds of North Koreans, most of them blinded by advanced cataracts. She minced no words as she reported, "Immediately, there's a feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world."

That same scary sense pervades the case of Lisa's sister Laura and Euna Lee. Now, whether North Korean authorities will want to release the two, enabling them to embellish on Lisa's words, is anyone's guess.

Tim Peters, whose organization, Helping Hands Korea, works closely with North Korean defectors, notes the film was definitely "embarrassing for the regime", especially in a re-enactment scene showing defectors trying to leave. In case anyone missed the point, Lisa Ling recounted what she called the "unimaginable horrors that people risk their lives to escape".

The ordeal of Ling and Lee has become all the more politicized since North Korea on April 14 said it was resuming its nuclear weapons program and expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency after the UN Security Council condemned the launch. At the same time, North Korea said it would "never" again join in six-party talks under which it agreed in 2007 to disable and then dismantle all its nuclear facilities in return for a vast infusion of aid.

Kim Sang-hun, active for years on behalf of North Korean defectors, fears North Korean outrage may complicate pleas for the women's release. North Korean authorities, he said, may see the two "as an opportunity for revenge" for the insults heaped on the North by Lisa Ling.

There is no doubt that Lisa Ling's report was one of the most severe indictments of North Korea ever to appear on television - for what she said as well as what she saw and surreptitiously filmed. "North Korea is ruled by an absolute dictator who has nuclear weapons," Lisa concluded. "What happens here in the Hermit Kingdom may touch everyone in the world."

Now, Laura Ling and Euna Lee are caught up in a system in which sister Lisa professed to have "started to get a sense of what it's like to be trapped under the iron grip of Kim Jong-il" - one in which "Kim Jong-il controls everything."

Kim Sung-han was cautiously optimistic that the two would eventually go home. He made a distinction between their case and those of approximately 500 South Koreans, mostly fishermen, picked up within North Korean territorial limits, as well as 20 or 30 Japanese kidnapped from Japanese soil in the late 1970s and early 1980s for whom the North has made no real accounting.

The difference is that North Korea says all of those either do not exist or are living in North Korea voluntarily, whereas the North acknowledges holding Ling and Lee. The best hope is that North Korea, after a prolonged process in which it extracts some concessions from the US in the form of promises of aid or diplomatic relations or both, will hand them over as a "goodwill gesture".

Kim doubts that they are being subjected to the beatings and torture that are routine in North Korean interrogations. After all, if they do get out, they might be inclined to speak well of their captors if treated properly.

Or, if they stay long enough, maybe they, too, will become professed believers, teaching English to North Koreans, interpreting and translating, as have others who have fallen into the North Korean net. Lisa Ling suggested that eerie fate when she remarked in her documentary, "Finally, it hit me, there may not be a difference between true belief and true fear."

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.