American journalists Laura Ling (right) and Euna Lee reunite with their families after nearly 5 months in North Korea.
Seeing those two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, walk off that plane last week in California recalled those images of the Japanese abductees returning to Tokyo in 2002 into the loving arms of their families for the first time in 25 years. We couldn't help feel a mixture of happiness and sadness when Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling finally came home. The Yokota family has waited more than 30 years to see Megumi again and many, many attempts to get her back have proved fruitless, much to the frustration of her family and the Japanese people. A film writer contacted us recently to ask us to react to the return of the Americans since he, too, saw the parallels having seen the film when it was first released in 2006. Our interview is below. We only hope that there is some kind of bounce from the Clinton trip to North Korea that may create a new spark in the effort to get answers about Megumi...
FROM WHAT WOULD TOTO WATCH BLOG
WWTW Interview: ‘Abduction’ filmmaker Chris Sheridan
AUGUST 10, 2009
When news broke about two American journalists arrested in North Korea, my first thoughts went to a terrific 2006 documentary recalling the disappearance of an innocent Japanese girl.
“Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story,” by filmmakers Chris Sheridan and Patty Kim, documented how North Korean spies kidnapped a 13-year-old Japanese girl as well as many other citizens.
So, WWTW reached out to Sheridan for his thoughts on the journalists’ release and the impact the news might have for others in a similar situation.
WWTW: What was your first reaction when you heard two American journalists has been arrested by North Korean officials?
CS: I have to say that my first reaction was: “that could’ve been me.”
My second reaction was: “there’s going to be a lot fewer American journalists going to the border now.” I think that was probably a common reaction amongst journalists and filmmakers who’ve been to dicey parts of the world. When you’re dealing with North Korea, you’re dealing with a country that plays by its own rules that change by the minute depending on what mood they’re in. Laura Ling and Euna Lee now understand that.
Many, many journalists and filmmakers have been along the same border and probably crossed in and out of North Korea, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly. They just happened to be there when North Korea needed some leverage in their ongoing dispute with the United States.
When I read the news, I knew North Korea would use them for some political ends. The North Koreans have been annoyed at the U.S., Japan and South Korea for the past year over the breakdown of talks over the nuclear issue. And they’re probably not too happy about the way the Western media portrays the whole dispute. This was a perfect way for them to jab the media in the eye and tell them to back off. Guarantee you that it worked. Anyone working on a documentary now is going to think twice about sneaking close to the Chinese-North Korean border. The same way that more than a few journalists and filmmakers probably thought twice about venturing outside the green zone in Iraq once people started getting their heads chopped off.
The real question that will need to be answered as a result of this trip is: “what did North Korea get from the Clinton trip?” They rarely do favors for others unless they get something in return. Kim Jong Il knows that when he’s talking to Bill, he’s talking to Hillary so I’m sure there was a laundry list of demands. Would love to know what those are especially since they are most likely related to the issue of whether North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons program.
WWTW: The two journalists have been freed …. what are the ramifications of this?
CS: This may, hopefully, shed some light on Kim Jong Il himself. Nothing earth-shattering but it may give policymakers and pundits a chance to see how this man’s brain works. The Clinton trip was a reaffirmation that Mr. Kim does respond very favorably to celebrities. Yes, Bill Clinton is a former U.S. President. But more importantly, he is a rock star. And he’s the kind of rock star Kim Jong IL might like — a playboy with liberal sensibilities and international appeal. This is a fact that has escaped many negotiators in the past. Bill Richardson has been effective but he’s not a heavyweight. Or, at least, the kind of American who garners big headlines and big interest.
Did you see how eager Kim Jong Il was to get a picture with Clinton? I say send Kobe Bryant and Angelina Jolie next time we send an American delegation to Pyongyang. I bet we’d get a lot further on the diplomatic front than in the past.
WWTW: President Clinton says he spoke to Kim Jong Il about other prisoners/hostages from South Korea? Could the trip make progress on that front, or at least give added exposure to these cases?
CS: I have to say that seeing those two Americans get off the plane was a little sad for me. I was happy, of course, that they were home and with their families. But knowing that Bill Clinton, with the help of the US government, did in just a few months what the families of the Japanese abductees and their government have been unable to do for more than 30 years gave me a little pang of sadness.
Megumi’s father said as much in a press conference last week following the Americans’ return. Can you imagine how he felt when he saw how quickly those women were returned while his little girl has been stuck inside North Korea for more than 30 years?
The flip side is, of course, that Mr. Clinton is aware that there are others still in North Korea. I do think this will, at the very least, create a greater awareness in the Clinton family, and, by extension, the State Department, of the Japanese abductions. Hopefully, by hearing Euna Lee and Laura Ling’s stories of struggle and hardship in North Korea, Mr. Clinton will take a more personal interest in those people who are still trapped there.
WWTW: Has the U.S. media done an accurate job reporting on the journalists’ situation? What might reporters have done differently or included to make audiences better understand the situation?
CS: I think it’s pretty hard to report anything fairly when it comes to North Korea. And the North Koreans certainly didn’t help themselves by snatching two journalists, trying them quickly and sentencing them to hard labor. Pretty hard to get a fair hearing in the Western press when you take two of their own. Moreover, North Korea has no spokesperson, no think tanks, no PR firms, no advocacy groups, nothing in the United States so it’s kind of difficult to say that the media does a fair job when reporting on anything related to them. That’s not a defense of North Korea, by the way, just a fact.
I think the American media does the best it can with what it has. I think the only thing I would’ve liked to see more of is an attempt to explain why North Korea does what it does from the inside rather than from the outside.
WWTW: Do you still follow the case of the missing people highlighted in your film, “Abduction?”
CS: Absolutely. We correspond with them all the time just to let them know we’re still thinking about them and praying for them. As I said, when the two journalists were freed, I immediately went online to see if the family of Megumi Yokota had reacted. They had. And rightly so. I really, really hope and wish that the Laura Ling and Euna Lee experience will somehow translate into more support for the Japanese abductees.
I will even take it a step further and say that I hope Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee themselves will translate their personal experience into support for the Japanese families since they now understand what it’s like to be taken from their families and denied a chance to live freely.