Since American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee returned from five months of imprisonment in North Korea, pastors and activists have criticized the two for endangering the lives of those who have fled the "hermit kingdom."
Missionaries say Chinese authorities have shut down safe houses where North Korean defectors stayed and fear a crackdown on their underground networks.
Tim Peters, a missionary in Seoul who oversees aid work in northeast China, told The Los Angeles Times that Ling and Lee's actions were irresponsible and their arrest earlier this year has made operations to help defectors even more difficult.
Amid the criticism, the two journalists who work for Current TV broke their silence this week to detail the circumstances of their arrest and draw attention to the plight of North Korean defectors.
Recounting their arrest, they explained that when they arrived at the frozen Tumen River – a well-used human trafficking route – at 5 a.m. on March 17, their guide, a Korean Chinese man who often worked for foreign journalists, "beckoned" them to follow him across the river to the North Korean side. There he pointed to a village where North Koreans waited in safe houses to be smuggled into China.
Ling and Lee weren't on North Korean soil for more than a minute before they quickly decided to turn back. It was then that they saw two North Korean soldiers running toward them.
"We were firmly back inside China when the soldiers apprehended us," they recalled.
After they were detained, the journalists destroyed any evidence they had of their work by swallowing notes and damaging videotapes. They had also taken "extreme caution" during their interviews to ensure that the defectors and their locations were not identifiable. They reminded readers that they were in China to report on the grim story of North Koreans who fled poverty and repression in their country only to find themselves in the online sex industry or forced into marriage.
Part of the reason they followed the guide across the river, they explained, was because they saw him as cautious and responsible and who was "as concerned as we were about protecting our interview subjects and not taking unnecessary risks."
The guide was introduced to them by the Rev. Chun Ki-won, who has helped smuggle hundreds of North Koreans out of China.
Chun told The New York Times that two of the women who were interviewed by Ling and Lee fled China in fear of being repatriated to North Korea. And he's worried that there may be other defectors whose lives are in danger.
At least 500,000 North Koreans are believed to have crossed the border over to China in the past 10 years.
Although North Korean defectors are welcomed by South Korea and the United States to resettle on their land, the Chinese government does not consider North Koreans as "refugees" and deports them back to their homeland, where they face torture and possibly death.
While some have decried Ling and Lee's actions as reckless, others have commended their courageous efforts.
"It is outrageous for people to criticize these women for trying to get this story out!" Suzanne Scholte, a tireless advocate for North Koreans and the 2008 Seoul Peace Prize Laureate, told The Christian Post. "The outrage should be about the North Korean regime abducting them from China and about the Chinese government taking their information and using it to break up shelters and orphanages and harass children and humanitarian workers."
"I consider these two professional journalists heroines," she said. "They were trying to report about one of the most under reported, tragic situations occurring in the world today – the trafficking of North Korean women, many of whom flee to China to try to feed their starving children.
"As someone who has worked on this issue for over a decade, I will be forever indebted to these two brave women for trying to get the story out about the horrors occurring to North Korean refugees in China."
Ling and Lee expressed regret over the increased scrutiny of activists and North Koreans living along the border.
But they hope they could still "shine light in dark places" and give voice to the defectors who face a grim life in China, but who still favor it over life in North Korea.
"We wanted to raise awareness about the harsh reality facing these North Korean defectors who, because of their illegal status in China, live in terror of being sent back to their homeland," the journalists stated. "We hope that now, more than ever, the plight of these people and of the aid groups helping them are not forgotten."