Friday, June 26, 2009

Fears for jailed US reporters in N Korea

This is one article I really.....well.....what can I say about it..........I keep on getting reminded about the film Megumi.......


Fears for jailed US reporters in N Korea

By Michael Dobie

BBC News

The news that two US journalists had been arrested in North Korea and sentenced to 12 years of "reform through labour" was greeted with alarm by their families, human rights groups and US officials.

North Korean soldiers patrol near the Yalu river, which separates North Korea from China, on 1 June
The two journalists were arrested on the Chinese-North Korean border

The isolated nation's prison system is widely regarded as one of the harshest in the world, with a shadowy network of labour camps estimated to hold hundreds of thousands of political prisoners and criminals.

Most analysts believe Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36, will be held in relatively good conditions, to be used as bargaining chips by Pyongyang to force concessions out of Washington.

But if their worst fears are realised and they are sent to a labour camp to serve their sentences of "reform through labour", they can expect overwork, starvation rations, arbitrary beatings and inadequate shelter, according to former North Korean prisoners who have fled the country.


Many of the camps are located at mines, quarries or factories where the prisoners are forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions, says CK Park, a South Korean researcher who has interviewed former prisoners.

He says the survival rate in some camps is very low, with many prisoners dying in their first three years of imprisonment.

A former guard in the North, Choi Dong-chul says prisoners "are treated not as human beings but as animals by the North Korean government".

The North Korean regime is not interested in having the two journalists report in detail the brutalities that exist in that system when they are finally released
Tim Peters
Works with North Korean refugees

Prisoners are beaten by the guards on a regular basis, he says, for minor violations such as resting without the guards' approval or neglecting to bow before a guard.

But foreigners who have been held in the North have mixed descriptions of their experiences.

Korean-American Evan C Hunziker was accused of spying after swimming the Yalu River between China and North Korea.

He spoke little of his experience, his father said, only to say that he was treated humanely but the food was bad. He reportedly wrote a letter to his mother saying he was moved from a prison to a hotel.

He was freed after 90 days when New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, then a congressman, negotiated his release, but he committed suicide one month after being freed.

Japanese journalist Takashi Sugishima spent two years in what he described as a warm, comfortable cell in a mountain prison facility after he was arrested in Pyongyang in December 1999 and charged with spying.

He said he was kept under constant surveillance, but never tortured and was given three hot meals a day.

"The treatment I received was more humane than I expected," he told Associated Press shortly after his release, but added that he constantly worried the guards might decide to kill him.

Cramped cell

At the other end of the spectrum is the experience of Ali Lamada, a member of Venezuela's Communist Party who said he was invited to North Korea in 1967 to work as a Spanish translator.

Lamada was arrested in September 1967 and accused of spying, he wrote in a 1979 account published by Amnesty International.

He was kept without trial for a year in a cramped, dirty and damp cell in the interior ministry in Pyongyang and was given dirty bread and watery vegetable soup to eat.

Journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling
Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling work for California-based Current TV

Lamada was released and then arrested two months later and sentenced to 20 years of labour.

He was taken to a work prison south of Pyongyang and kept in an unheated cell where his feet became frostbitten.

Lamada was finally released in 1974 after Venezuela and Romania intervened on behalf of him and Jacques Sedillot, a French translator who was arrested at the same time as Lamada.

Sedillot, however, died of illnesses contracted in prison before he could leave Pyongyang.

Their experience does not bode well for Ling, who has a stomach ulcer according to her family, or Lee, who is also reportedly ill.

The two were seized by border guards in March while reporting at the Chinese border on the plight of North Korean refugees for California-based Current TV.

A week after their June trial, North Korea's state news agency, KCNA, said Ling and Lee "admitted and accepted" they had been trying to get footage for a "smear campaign" against North Korea over human rights.

'Isolation and depression'

For now they are being held in Pyongyang, where Sweden's ambassador to North Korea, Mats Foyer, has been able to visit them.

The ambassador provided few details of the meeting, but he has been "in constant contact with the North Korean foreign ministry, is constantly pressing them for more information about these two young women," said US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.

A North korean soldier patrols along the Yalu river, which separates North Korea from China, on 27 May
The journalists were reporting on the plight of refugees fleeing North Korea

The Swedes in Pyongyang told American officials that the two journalists were being held in a "good place" with decent food and medical care, said California Congresswoman Jane Harman.

And in a rare telephone call recently, Laura Ling described her confinement as "bearable", her husband Iain Clayton said.

She was nervous about the possibility, he added, of being transferred to a labour camp.

Most analysts believe Ling, a Chinese-American, and Lee, a Korean-American, will not receive the same treatment as North Koreans consigned to the camps.

"I seriously doubt that the two journalists would be placed in the bowels of the prison system for the simple reason that the North Korean regime is not interested in having the two journalists report in detail the brutalities that exist in that system when they are finally released," says Tim Peters of Helping Hands Korea, a charity that assists North Korean refugees.

"Certainly, though, the isolation and depression that they would experience is a grave consideration."

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