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Ling and Lee Go Public with Story of North Korean Arrest

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Ling speaks after arriving home with Clinton (left), and Lee (next to Gore) (AP Photo/David Zentz)

Ling speaks after arriving home with Clinton (left), and Lee (next to Gore) (AP Photo/David Zentz)
For the first time since their capture in North Korea, sentencing to a hard labor camp, and return to the US following a diplomatic intervention by former President Bill Clinton, Current TV, the San Francisco-based cable network part-owned by former Vice President Al Gore, has come forward with details of the incident involving their reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee.The pair issued a statement which was published last night on Current's website. Ling and Lee had traveled to China to "document a grim story of human trafficking" mid-March, and relied on a local guide to help them navigate the hostile terrain near the frozen river that separates China from North Korea. They describe their guide's actions:

There were no signs marking the international border, no fences, no barbed wire. But we knew our guide was taking us closer to the North Korean side of the river. As he walked, he began making deep, low hooting sounds, which we assumed was his way of making contact with North Korean border guards he knew. The previous night, he had called his associates in North Korea on a black cellphone he kept for that purpose, trying to arrange an interview for us. He was unsuccessful, but he could, he assured us, show us the no-man's land along the river, where smugglers pay off guards to move human traffic from one country to another.

The movement of the journalists has been questioned since their capture and subsequent release: Did they plan to go into North Korea? Where were they when they were captured?Ling and Lee explain:

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When we set out, we had no intention of leaving China, but when our guide beckoned for us to follow him beyond the middle of the river, we did, eventually arriving at the riverbank on the North Korean side. He pointed out a small village in the distance where he told us that North Koreans waited in safe houses to be smuggled into China via a well-established network that has escorted tens of thousands across the porous border. Feeling nervous about where we were, we quickly turned back toward China. Midway across the ice, we heard yelling. We looked back and saw two North Korean soldiers with rifles running toward us. Instinctively, we ran.

We were firmly back inside China when the soldiers apprehended us. Producer Mitch Koss and our guide were both able to outrun the border guards. We were not. We tried with all our might to cling to bushes, ground, anything that would keep us on Chinese soil, but we were no match for the determined soldiers. They violently dragged us back across the ice to North Korea and marched us to a nearby army base, where we were detained. Over the next 140 days, we were moved to Pyongyang, isolated from one another, repeatedly interrogated and eventually put on trial and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor.

It took Ling and Lee some time since their return home to feel up to addressing the public, besides their tearful reunion and Ling's brief remarks upon their special flight's arrival at Burbank's Bob Hope airport last month.However, they feel that while there remain "things that are still too painful to revisit," it's their belief "that journalists have a responsibility to shine light in dark places, to give voice to those who are too often silenced and ignored." They worked carefully while in China to protect the identities of the many people who "live in terror of being sent back to their homeland," on the other side of that menacing river.

Now back home, Ling and Lee continue to express profound gratitude to those who worked to ensure their release, those who kept the story of their captivity alive, and to their colleagues for honoring their request of silence regarding their investigations in China. But the silence from them will now resume as they work on recovering and re-adapting to life back home:

We know that people would like to hear more about our experience in captivity. But what we have shared here is all we are prepared to talk about -- the psychological wounds of imprisonment are slow to heal. Instead, we would rather redirect this interest to the story we went to report on, a story about despairing North Korean defectors who flee to China only to find themselves living a different kind of horror. We hope that now, more than ever, the plight of these people and of the aid groups helping them are not forgotten.