Strange Occurrences on the Border: Reviewing the Ling/Lee North Korea Episode

By | January 31, 2012 | No Comments

 As its propaganda testifies, the North Korean state is nothing if not attentive to its anniversaries.  Kim Jong Il’s 70th birthday on February 16, 2012, along with Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday on April 15, 2012, are serving as repetitious focal points and justifications for – what else? – massive labor mobilization in the DPRK.  However, among and in between these state sanctioned dates, multiple divergent anniversaries exist that also merit commemorating outside the DPRK.

For students of North Korean political culture and the 1461 kilometers of the Sino-North Korean border, anniversaries allow us not simply to reflect on past events, but help us to gauge how, if at all, things have changed with North Korea and along the North Korean borderlands since the prior events.

On March 17, 2012, precisely three years will have elapsed since the arrest (abduction?) of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee along the frozen Tumen River, where they had travelled in search of narratives of North Korean refugees and sex workers in northeast China.

Euna Lee, left, Laura Ling, center; Image courtesy “Cows on the Couch,” a Hollywood entertainment gossip site, 2009

Travelling with their producer Mitch Koss and a Chinese-Korean guide, the two journalists ventured down to an isolated spot on the Tumen River, the tributary separating China from North Korea.  Laura Ling, being filmed by her colleague as she explained that they were walking towards a node on the “underground railroad” of North Korean refugees, was soon on North Korean territory.  Ling and Lee apparently thought they had a scoop –meeting refugees before they crossed the river, allegedly – but instead they were swooped down upon by North Korean border guards and dragged away, while Mitch Koss and their turncoat guide (who was probably working for North Korean security agency) ran away back into China.

Mitch Koss turned himself in to Chinese police and was deported, the Korean fixer disappeared, and the girls were taken to Pyongyang for three months of captivity, a show trial.  After theirescue by Bill Clinton and a made-for-CNN arrival in a jet in Los Angeles, the girls both got book deals, although, thanks to her big sister and co-author Lisa, Laura Ling got an appearance on Oprah.

For readers unfamiliar with the episode or needing a full citation for the books in question, the Wikipedia entry would be a good place to start.

It was a confusing and instructive episode in the life of several ongoing narratives: how Americans see the DPRK, how the North Korean state sees journalists on its frontier, how North Korean state security agencies react, how American media deals with North Korea, and in the question of cultural exchanges.   The books written by the major participants tell us about refugees (elliptically), border security (marginally), North Korean media strategy in negotiating with the United States, cultural fluency with the West among an ultra-small sub-group of security personnel in Pyongyang, and, of course, the inherent interest in disentangling the incident.

Coming soon, in so many words, is what should be a five-part series of reviews of the books by the two main protagonists (some might say pawns) in that episode, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, to be released in stages on

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