Brits welcome in North Korea for Arirang

The ban on UK visitors in the DPRK has been removed for the summer, according to an e-mail announcement from Koryo Tours. This was the last of the restrictions that the world was waiting for North Korean authorities to lift. Citizens from the UK will be able to travel to the reclusive Communist country this year for Arirang. A similar bar on travel from the United States was removed back in April.

For travel to North Korea for Arirang, little seems to have been affected by the recent sentencing of American journalists accused to have entered the country illegally … with the exception of an air of concern which must obviously enter the mind of anyone considering travel to this unusual corner of the world.

American journalists get the max in North Korean court

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters with Current TV, were sentenced to 12 years of hard labor this morning – the maximum sentence under law. The five-day trial yielded a verdict of guilt for the “grave crime” of illegally crossing into North Korea, the Korea Central News Agency reported, according to MSNBC. The English version of the story, at least, has not yet made it to the KCNA’s website, where the lead story involves Kim Jong Il’s visit to Kosan Fruit Farm.

The sentence is being called “reform through labor,” and no other details are provided. Under North Korean law, the two journalists will be moved to prison within 10 days of the verdict. Lee and Ling are unable to appeal, as they have already been convicted by the country’s highest court: the decisions are final. The trial was not open to the public, and representatives from the Swedish Embassy, which acts as a liaison for many western nations, was not permitted to observe.

Yet, this may not be the end of the road.

There are some analysts who believe that the conviction is part of a greater negotiating ploy in North Korea, which is effectively holding the journalists hostage in order to gain concessions, such as humanitarian aid. If the isolated nation gets what it wants, Lee and Ling would likely receive pardons. Of course, the “nuclear issue” remains in the background, as well.

Though little has been released about the circumstances of the journalists’ apprehension, it has been revealed that the two were investigating and reporting on human trafficking along the border. What is not clear, however, is whether they actually crossed into North Korea.

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A peek inside the North Korean courts

There’s something chilling about journalists being detained and tried in a foreign country … a prospect made all the more uncomfortable when you throw the “Dear Leader” into the mix. But, do we really know what’s about to happen? Well, aside from the fact that they’re going to be tried “according to the indictment of the competent organ“?

Frankly, there’s little information about what Laura Ling and Euna Lee are about to experience, unsurprising considering the state of information flow to and from the reclusive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK – also known as North Korea). Based on the nuggets available, the DPRK has never held an official trial for a foreigner. Evan Hunziker, a missionary who swam from China to North Korea in 1996 – now that’s determination! – was detained for a few months and then released only to commit suicide a little later. Hunziker did not have the benefit of legal proceedings.

Here’s what is known:

Ling and Lee will be tried in the Central Court, the top court in the DPRK. Typically, this is an appellate court, but for cases considered to be extreme – and against the country itself – it has initial jurisdiction. In a sense, this would be like to alleged criminals being tried by the Supreme Court in the United States. So, it looks like the DPRK is trying to make a point.

The judges are elected by the Supreme People’s Assembly – the North Korea’s legislative body. The trial itself will have one judge and two “people’s assessors.” The latter are essentially “lay judges.” Appeals usually warrant a panel with three actual judges.

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Now, this next point is interesting. You do not have to have any legal education or experience to become a judge. Before going on a tirade about the injustice of it all, consider the requirements for becoming a Supreme Court justice. There is no education or experience requirement in the U.S. Constitution. And, the justice has to be confirmed by the legislative body – which sounds strangely like a legislative body’s voting to select judges. In some states, such as New York, the electorate votes for judges, many of whom not only have no legal education or experience but routinely screw up trials because their rulings are contrary to law.

On paper, at least, the two systems aren’t all that different.

The Central Court’s rulings can’t be appealed. If I remember correctly (and it’s been a while since high school civics class), you can’t appeal a Supreme Court ruling. To whom would you appeal it?

Here’s where it get’s a little creepy.

In North Korea, the accused does not have the right to defend herself (or, of course, himself) and does not have the right to be represented by a lawyer. A defense attorney can be selected, according to DPRK law, by the defendant, the defendant’s family or her “organizational representatives” – probably Current TV, in this case. Neither Ling nor Lee has had any legal access, so it seems unlikely that they’ll get to pick a lawyer. I doubt Current TV or the families will have much of a say.

Even if they could choose lawyers, pickings are slim. The U.S. State Department states that there is “no indication that independent, nongovernmental defense lawyers [are available].”

The trial will be conducted in Korean, but the defendants will be able to use their own languages during the trial – a trial that is open to the public, unless there is concern that state secrets may be exposed. Defector testimony suggests that trials are usually closed.

Depending on the exact nature of the charges, the two journalists could spend more than a decade each in a labor camp. Death is not on the table, as this punishment has been reserved for four crimes since 2004: trying to overthrow the government, terrorism (though I don’t think it counts if it’s terrorism against a capitalist devil), treason and “suppressing the people’s movement for national liberation [huh?].” Yep, nice and broad … and you don’t even need to go to court to be executed.

June 4 trial date for American journalists in North Korea


Laura Ling and Euna Lee, both reporters for Current TV, will be tried in a North Korean court on June 4, 2009 for entering the country illegally and planning “hostile acts.” Ling and Lee were picked up along North Korea‘s border with China on March 17, 2009

Anybody want to guess how this one will end?

According to reports by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which is controlled by the state, the two reporters have been allowed contact with a consulate. Since the United States does not maintain diplomatic relations with the reclusive Communist state, they met with a representative from the Swedish embassy. Sweden plays the consular role for visitors (willing or otherwise) from many western countries.

What’s missing is a clear description of the charges. It is unclear what the reporters were doing. This will make it difficult to bring the affair to a conclusion.

Though it’s speculation at this point, the charges could carry prison terms of up to two years.

Arirang gets green light in DPRK!

It is confirmed: the Arirang Mass Games will be held in Pyongyang, North Korea this summer. The event will run from August 10, 2009 through the end of September, highlighting the precision for which the DPRK performers have become famous. According to Koryo Tours, Americans are welcome to attend the festival this year.

If you are considering a visit to the Hermit Kingdom late this summer, do be aware that the DPRK has enforced a time limit on U.S. tours in the past. Usually, visits are capped at four nights, and Americans are only allowed to enter and leave the country by plane. Though, if this changes, Koryo Tours expects to be able to arrange extensions and travel via train, depending on how and when restrictions are eased. Also, Arirang has been extended into October in the past, and starts early from time to time.

So, put concerns of global tension out of your mind for a while. If you’ve been waiting for the opportunity to reach a corner of the world that few outsiders get to see, this is your chance.

For Americans, click here for more information.

Don’t forget to check out our first-hand coverage of North Korea‘s Mass Games from 2007, which includes some amazing video, or click through the images below.
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