The TV journalists who spent nearly five months imprisoned in North Korea said they never meant to cross into the communist dictatorship or put the lives of defectors at risk.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, journalists for Current TV who were working on a story about human trafficking, were caught in an icy no-man's land along the Chinese border and transferred to Pyongyang. Since former President Clinton made a diplomatic mission to North Korea last month to win their freedom, the reporters have faced criticism that their actions may have hurt those they were trying to champion.
But in a posting on the Current TV web site, also published as an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, the reporters said they made every effort to protect their sources from retaliation.
“With guards right outside the room, we furtively destroyed evidence in our possession by swallowing notes and damaging videotapes,” Ling and Lee wrote. “People had put their lives at risk by sharing their stories, and we were determined to do everything in our power to safeguard them.”
In the statement, the pair provided scant details of their time in captivity but described for the first time the moments leading up to their capture, which they said happened on the Chinese side of the border in March 17.
“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,” Ling and Lee wrote.
They said that in reporting a story about human trafficking and sexual exploitation of refugees, their guard had promised to show them the place where smugglers pay bribes to guards who have moved tens of thousands of people from the North to China. After briefly crossing the unmarked river into North Korea, where their guard pointed to a safehouse, they said they turned back. But it was too late.
Two North Korean soldiers with guns ran toward the group, but Ling and Lee could not outrun them. They said they grasped at bushes and icy ground as the two men dragged them back across the Chinese border to a nearby army base.
“We didn't spend more than a minute on North Korean soil before turning back, but it is a minute we deeply regret,” they wrote. “To this day, we still don't know if we were lured into a trap.”
Ultimately, they wrote, they took responsibility for following their guide and “continue to pay for that decision today with dark memories of our captivity.”
Lee and Ling rejected the accusation that they carelessly jeopardized the work of their main source, Seoul-based pastor Rev. Chun Ki-won, whose homes for North Korean refugees were shut down after the reporters’ arrest.
Chun told news outlets that he warned the pair not to go near the river.
"They should have known that if they were caught, they would suffer for sure, but also many others would be hurt because of them," the pastor said after their arrest.
Ling and Lee said they “were surprised” to hear of the criticism. They said he gave them no such warning.