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Activists Voice Concern Following N. Korea's Release of US Journalists

By Jason Strother
Seoul
07 August 2009

American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee are safely back home after more than four months imprisonment in North Korea. But human rights activists in South Korea are worried about what they may have left behind.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were apprehended by North Korean border guards along the Chinese border in March. They were reporting on the trafficking of North Korean women who leave their impoverished homeland behind.

Human rights activists who operate in that region are concerned that when the two American journalists were picked up, they had with them the names, contact information and video footage of defectors and aid workers they met along the way.

Tim Pieters is a missionary in Seoul who oversees aid work in northeast China. He says that some journalists put North Korean refugees at risk by interviewing them.

"To tell their story, means that they're documenting that they have knowingly and at great risk to themselves left North Korea," Pieters said. "They are putting on the record that they are against the North Korean regime and let's not forget the fact to leave North Korea without any permission, without a visa, is tantamount to a capital crime."

Most refugees change their names after leaving North Korea and many refuse to have their picture taken. That is to protect family members, who could be punished by the Pyongyang government if it discovers their relative has defected.

China forcibly repatriates North Korea it finds on its territory. According to the testimony of other refugees, they are sent to labor camps as punishment.

Pieters says for now, its unclear if any of the information that Lee and Ling may have had in their possession has been put to use by the North Korean authorities.

Pieters says in the past, both the Chinese and North Korean governments have sought out and arrested aid workers who help defectors travel along the so-called underground railroad to Southeast Asia.

And the detention of Ling and Lee has forced human rights groups to change the way they operate.

"It has raised so many flags in that region, without getting into specifics, it just simply means that security measures have to be redoubled," Pieters said. "This has become such a sensitive issue, that it complicates matters immensely for protecting the refugees. It's even more necessary to take things more underground and more precautions have to be taken."

Lee, Ling and Current TV, the network they report for, have not said whether the North Korean government confiscated any of their notes or video.



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