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By Joseph Tsidulko
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Two Asian-American journalists sentenced to 12 years’ “reform through labor” by a North Korean court June 8 were part of a three-person team that set out from Los Angeles in March to document the underground railroad that North Korean refugees use to reach China, where they receive aid from beckoning South Korean and Korean-American evangelical Christian groups.
The Current TV team included veteran executive producer Mitchell Koss, 56; on-air correspondent Laura Ling, 33, vice president and managing editor of Current/Vanguard; and much less experienced editor Euna Lee, 36, all from the cable outlet’s elite Vanguard investigative-reporting unit based in a dreary section of the Hollywood flatlands between Highland and La Brea avenues.
Lee and Ling, younger sister of National Geographic reporter Lisa Ling, were arrested in the predawn hours of March 17, as they videotaped in Kangan-ri, North Korea. The pair were whisked in separate vehicles to Pyongyang for questioning, South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported. They were charged with politically smearing the North Korean state.
Koss somehow eluded capture, was briefly held by Chinese authorities and then seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.
This much has been widely reported.
Today Koss is holed up at his home in the quiet hills a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, refusing all comment. Friends of Koss say that he and others were advised that if they spoke, it could be used against Ling and Lee by the North Koreans.
Current TV is maintaining a stony silence, with what one employee calls “a complete lockdown” on comment by all workers, and managers have deleted messages of support for the jailed journalists from the Current TV Web site.
But citizen journalism isn’t the exclusive domain of Current TV or its politically influential bankrollers, including Al Gore. Netizen sojos don’t need no stinkin’ badges, and thus, a loosely knit “barefoot band” of bloggers, freelancers and others began to flesh out information about Lee, Ling and, most notably, Koss.
Koss hasn’t responded to calls or e-mails. But the silent Mr. Koss speaks, without speaking, through documents, public records and transcripts found online and shared via social media like Facebook and Twitter.
Mitchell Herman Koss holds a degree in political science. He was a gung-ho producer for ABC News, CNN and PBS, keeping programs such as NOVA and The MacNeil-Lehrer Report on the cutting edge. But about the time he started getting those AARP membership forms, Koss found himself exiled to MTV, Channel One and Current TV — the Kiddie Corps of the news biz.
Multimedia files and a narrative based on the Internet document trail were mashed into a post for an obscure Asian-American news blog, Epicanthus.net. It was titled “Who Is Mitchell Koss, and Why Isn’t He Talking?” — and I authored it.
But before pushing the “publish” button, a member of the barefoot team thought it best to give Koss another try. So I used the old “pizza delivery” ruse to gain entry into Vanguard’s office on Lexington Avenue in Hollywood.
Koss wasn’t there. A staffer said he hadn’t been for a month. And Current/Vanguard correspondent Adam Yamaguchi, who had worked closely with Koss and Ling, refused to comment. “Listen. There is nothing for you here. Don’t ever come back. Do you hear me? Don’t ... ever ... come ... back,” Yamaguchi said in a low monotone before walking away.
A few days later, North Korea conducted its second nuclear test, and the hopes some had for a quick negotiated release of Lee and Ling now seemed unrealistic.
Since neither the U.S. Department of State nor anyone else was talking, we sought an expert on North Korean relations. KPCC producer Chumi Paul suggested Jim Walsh at MIT’s Security Studies Program, a nuclear-weapons analyst who has engaged in dialogues with representatives from North Korea.
Walsh, who has made more than 300 appearances on CNN and is recognized as a leading authority in his field, agreed to speak with a mere blogger.
“It is very, very unfortunate,” Walsh says of the plight of the two American reporters. “People need to be patient. It could take a while.”
Asked about the State Department’s refusal to explain what it is doing to help, and about Current TV’s lockdown, Walsh says, “In the past, North Korea has shown that they seek to gain bargaining leverage through crisis. During these times, quiet communication is the right way to go.”
But citing Kim Jong-il’s deteriorating health, Walsh adds, “The internal dynamics are different during a leadership transition. The crisis is within, and back-channel communications are not effective because sometimes there’s no one answering the phone on the other end.”
The military posturing — missile launches and nuclear tests — is sometimes a sign of internal strife, Walsh explains. National media report that the Pentagon is repositioning U.S. ground-to-air radar and missile defenses to be ready in case North Korea launches a long-range missile at Hawaii. Walsh’s final remark is chilling: “Under the current circumstances, it would not be unusual for them (Lee and Ling) to be convicted and held for many years.”
A little more than three weeks ago, Kim Jong-il named his son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor; then Lee and Ling received their 12-year sentences; and then North Korea announced plans to launch its Taepodong-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile toward Hawaii, around the Fourth of July.
On June 11, “Who Is Mitchell Koss, and Why Isn’t He Talking?” — Netizen journalism’s attempt to fill in the blanks left by the local media’s continued insouciance about the man who knows too much — was published.
In response, an e-mail arrived from a Current TV insider, who wrote: “Interesting article on Mitchell Koss. I’m another one of his protégés. I’d say you got 90 percent dead-on accurate, which is pretty amazing since the premise suggests you’ve never spoken to Mitch.”
Then, an Internet colleague put us in touch with journalism god Jon Alpert, who offered further insight.
In the ’70s, Alpert invented the cinéma verité style of TV documentary journalism used by many today, including Koss. Alpert and his wife, Keiko Tsuno, won 15 Emmys and three DuPont-Columbia Awards for their investigative reports from Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Cuba and Afghanistan.
“Yeah, it’s tragic for those ambitious young reporters to be put into that kind of situation,” Alpert says.
“We were in dangerous situations many times,” he recalls. “You always have to weigh the risk, to calculate. Is it worth it?
“Current’s heart is in the right place. Back then we were just like them; we were gonna report from places nobody else got to go.
“But a lot of their stuff is superficial,” Alpert says. “It’s as much them parading around somewhere as it is reporting. I talked to them about that.”
Alpert led us to Jim Butterworth, a Colorado-based filmmaker whose Emmy Award–winning Seoul Train, released in 2005, is a widely respected documentary on North Koreans who crisscross the China–North Korea border for cash, cigarettes, food, fuel and freedom.
Butterworth, who has stood on the very spot from which Lee, Ling and Koss crossed into North Korea, says, “My partner, Lisa (Sleeth), and I have talked about the Current TV crew a lot. ... Yes, we have crossed over the border, but we weren’t foolish enough to think we could go into a North Korean village, as they apparently did.”
Butterworth says the two Asian-American women would have stood out, even in local clothing. “Because of a generation of malnutrition, the North Koreans are tiny people. The Americans’ height and weight would have attracted too much attention.”
The seasoned filmmaker adds, “It was insane.”
Meanwhile, someone has posted the employment contract for Current TV president of programming David Neuman. It shows that Neuman stands to make a cool million bucks this year. Likewise — and more — for CEO Joel Hyatt and Current’s founder, Al Gore, both still silent on Ling and Lee.
Here in L.A., the media seem focused on sentimental stories of weeping relatives and naive demands for their release. Mitchell Koss, the one man who knows exactly what happened in Kangan-ri on March 17, still isn’t saying squat.
Babamoto blogs occasionally at Epicanthus.net.