BEIJING // On Christmas Eve, North Korean TV had a special programme celebrating the 18th anniversary of the country's leader, Kim Jong Il, assuming the commander-in-chief post of the nation's army. The programme also featured two soldiers, Son Yong Ho and Kim Chul, who in March had arrested Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two journalists who worked for the San Francisco-based Current TV. For the first time, the North Korean border guards publicly described how they had come to arrest the Americans.
The pair were working on a report about the trafficking of North Korean women across the border with China, where they are often forced into prostituion. Kim Jong Il honoured the soldiers with a "Kim Il Sung Meritorious Award" and also gave them special leave to visit their hometown, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. Kim Il Sung was the founder of North Korea, and Kim Jong Il's father. "When I arrived at the entrance of my hometown, I noticed all the residents in town gathered there holding flowers," Mr Son, a low-level sentry witout a known official rank, said on the programme. "I wondered what it was about and stood there momentarily. Then, the head of the military unit there held me up and gave a ride on his shoulder. I marched into the town receiving a hero's welcome."
For the first time, the North Korean guards publicly described how they had come to arrest the Americans. "It was about six o'clock in the morning, full of fog. We heard the sound of a car stopping across the Chinese side of the border. We became alert. A few people crossed the frozen Tumen River into North Korea [and were] starting to film the surrounding area." From the state news agency's report, it was unclear which sentry was being interviewed.
"We overpowered them at gunpoint, judging they entered [our country] with hostile intention." The journalists were sentenced to 12 years of hard labour for committing a "grave crime" against North Korea and illegally entering the country, North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency said at the time. They were released in August after the former US president Bill Clinton flew to the secretive country and met with Kim Jong Il, who issued a special pardon for the pair.
While Ling and Lee were seen in the United States as victims of a repressive government for simply doing their jobs, they also were criticised by human rights advocates and Christian organisations for endangering the very people they tried to cover. Their notes and videotapes fell into the hands of the authorities, resulting in the raids of safe houses of North Korean refugees hiding in China and the deportation of a South Korean Christian activist who helped them.
The journalists defended their actions. "During rigorous, daily interrogation sessions, we took care to protect our sources and interview subjects. We were also extremely careful not to reveal the names of our Chinese and Korean contacts, including Chun," they said in a statement posted on their company's website. "Chun" is Chun Ki-won, a Christian pastor in Seoul who helped arrange the duo's trip to the border region. In an earlier interview with The National, Mr Chun said he had warned them against venturing into North Korean territory, which the pair has admitted they did. His network has helped smuggle hundreds of North Koreans out of China.
"We are not on speaking terms to each other because of the different understandings we had with each other on this matter," Mr Chun said about his current relationship with the two Americans. "But - it's a past story now. What good is there now to bring it up?" Kang Soo-jin, of the Coalition for North Korean Women's Rights, a Seoul-based support group, said the media coverage of the incident has indeed helped highlight the plight of North Koreans refugees. But she described the conflicting desires of activist Christian aid groups, which on the one hand want to do their work secretly, but on the other hope their efforts gain attention that helps attract financial resources to fund their work.
Ms Kang, who defected to South Korea in 2002 via China, also said that the Christian groups' contradictory goals, and what she claimed are exaggerations, are endangering North Korean Christians rather than helping them. "The Christian groups say there are Christians being persecuted in North Korea. They say there are underground churches in North Korea. How come I didn't know about it when I was in North Korea?," she said. "It's impossible to imagine in North Korea for two or three people to secretly gather and pray in an underground church. I am telling you that doesn't happen.
"That's the story Christian organisations tell people. It's their job and they need to draw people's attention," she said. "In North Korea, if you have any link to Christianity, you are regarded as a spy. You will be sent to a gulag for political prisoners. When they publicly say there are underground churches in North Korea, they are actually killing them, rather than helping them." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org