July Issue: Arrest of U.S. Journalists Was Planned Spy Operation

Photo credit: Mark Edward Harris

When journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were arrested by North Korean authorities for illegally entering the isolated country in March 2009, many wondered who betrayed them and how had they been caught so easily.

A recent report from the Chosun Ilbo revealed that it was a carefully orchestrated operation masterminded by North Korea’s State Security Department deputy chief Ryu Kyong.

Using a well-established network of China-based operatives, Ryu obtained intelligence that Ling and Lee, journalists working for Current TV, were doing a story on North Korean refugees and planned to make a trip to the China-North Korea border.

Ryu then instructed his spies to bribe a Korean-Chinese guide to lead the two women into a trap on the banks of the Tumen River, where they were caught by North Korean guards. The Chosun Ilbo reported that Ryu was then “hailed as a national hero” for prompting former President Bill Clinton to make a face-losing diplomatic trip to secure the release of Ling and Lee.

The celebration apparently didn’t last long, however, as Ryu was reportedly executed earlier this year in what is being deemed by North Korea experts as a Pyongyang power struggle. Some have speculated that Ryu was getting too powerful, while others suspected him of being a double agent for South Korea, according to the Chosun Ilbo.

This article appeared in the July 2011 issue of KoreAm.