Rep. Ed Royce Comments on Return of Journalists

August 12, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

LOS ANGELES—Ed Royce (CA-40) is a concerned U.S. congressional representative when issues relate to human rights and personal freedoms. So when journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were released from their imprisonment in North Korea, The Epoch Times called Congressman Royce Aug. 7 to get his thoughts on the incident and the important issues involved.

Royce has been very supportive of improving human rights in North Korea. In 2007 he co-authored a resolution “Calling on China to Respect the Human Rights of Refugees from North Korea,” that urged China to stop returning defected North Koreans that would face death or harsh retribution upon their repatriation to North Korea.

Royce gives his responses and comments below to questions posed by The Epoch Times.

Epoch Times (ET):  Can you share your thoughts about the two journalists and your involvement in helping secure their release?
Ed Royce (ER): We have two journalists here, who took enormous personal risks in order to try to tell the world about the worst human rights abuses going on inside the planet today.  And in the process, they themselves were captured by North Korea and faced the same horrors. They were trying to expose human rights abuses, and as a result of that faced the same abuse… 12 years of hard labor in a work camp.

I have interviewed individuals in the past who have lived through that experience in work camps. I knew what the conditions were. I knew how horrible and life threatening those experiences would be.  We had a case, an individual from Illinois who was captured and he was never returned and he perished in the prison of North Korea. We never even got his bones back, despite the fact that the delegation in Illinois worked for years on this project.  So my concern was to try to move quickly on a humanitarian mission, and the fact that Laura Ling and Euna Lee stayed so clear headed throughout this ordeal was a great help.

Freed U.S. journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling (2nd L) tearfully greet their husbands Michael Saldate (3rd L) and Iain Clayton (4th L) after being released from North Korea, at Burbank Airport, CA. on Aug. 5. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
Freed U.S. journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling (2nd L) tearfully greet their husbands Michael Saldate (3rd L) and Iain Clayton (4th L) after being released from North Korea, at Burbank Airport, CA. on Aug. 5. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

The other observation I made is that North Korea asked former president Clinton not to send anyone from the current administration. I think that sent a very strong signal, that they were willing to negotiate Laura and Euna’s return without connecting the case to the 6-party talks. So by focusing this as a purely humanitarian issue, I think it increased the likelihood we could achieve this.  I had three separate meetings with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton on this issue and Yong Kim of my staff also worked towards a resolution.

We also talked with the Swedish embassy; as you know the Swedish ambassador in North Korea was able to meet on several occasions with the journalists in order to get information on not just about their condition but also to assist us and access us in terms of our judgment. I talked to the ambassador in Washington on this issue.

I wrote a letter to President Obama. In that letter I explained why I felt there was urgency given the sentencing of 12 years of labor in a work camp.  In my letter I said given the horrendous conditions facing Laura Ling and Euna Lee, coupled with their draconian sentence, this situation requires your urgent and personal attention.

ET:  Former president Clinton apparently pursued their release based upon humanitarian reasons. But these two women were not freed but pardoned; what if other Americans are captured by North Korea or in other parts of the world? Do you think the release of the journalists was a total success or would it encourage similar behavior by rogue nations in the future?

ER:  I think it’s a success for two reasons.  The first is that I do not believe Kim Jong Il got anything other then a photo-op out of this. And second, I think it worked against him because Radio Free Asia (RFA) broadcasts the truth about the regime into North Korea.  We have vastly expanded our broadcasting into North Korea with the facts and 40% of defectors tell us they are monitoring RFA broadcasts.

After the release I did an interview with RFA that was broadcast into North Korea and in which I explained that these journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were actually speaking up on the human rights violations that were taking place inside North Korea. They were documenting the malnutrition that occurs there and documenting the lack of any rights. We’re broadcasting the message that there is no freedom of expression or freedom of press inside the country. And that the North Korean leader even captures on their border journalists who try to come to the aid of their oppressed people to allow the world to know about the lack of freedom and the starvation and malnutrition that’s affecting young children and the rest of the population.

The conditions are heart wrenching and here you have two journalists attempting to come to the aid of the North Koreans and this was the price they paid. He’s getting this message, heard not only by his own people but by people all over the world because there is tremendous coverage about this.  One of the themes is that these journalists were covering trafficking of young women who were on the verge of starvation while trying to reach freedom and instead were being captured, with their rights violated, and virtually sold into slavery.

Laura Ling (front row, second from the left) and Euna Lee (front row, fourth from left) with their families at the Burbank Airport on Aug. 5. (Deborah Chang /The Epoch Times)
Laura Ling (front row, second from the left) and Euna Lee (front row, fourth from left) with their families at the Burbank Airport on Aug. 5. (Deborah Chang /The Epoch Times)

And so I think for Kim Jong Il the attention and publicity have all been negative in terms of what his regime has done.  And we are getting that same message to his people. I don’t think we should rest until the world is fully aware about the conditions inside his labor camps.

It’s a message to the next journalist that we will assist you if you intend to speak out on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. If you intend to be the voice of the voiceless, and get the nightmare scenario that they live under and broadcast that to the rest of the world so they would know, we will come to your aid when a totalitarian regime attempts to silence you.

ET:  Some people say that these two girls should not have gone to this dangerous zone because it cost the country having to negotiate with the dictator.  But to search for the truth and to report it to the people, that’s basically our duty as a journalist.

ER:  Would you say that journalists should never tell us about the Gulags [penal labor camps] in the Soviet Union? Would you say that journalists should never have attempted to report on what happened during Mao Zedong’s [Mao Tse-tung’s] rule in China? The reality is that is the role of journalists to tell the truth about what is happening in the world.

Normally when there is free press the risks are tolerable. But journalists take enormous risk in a totalitarian regime that starved 1.9 million of its own people in the case of North Korea, and I know that figure is correct because it was confirmed to me by the Minister of Propaganda for North Korea for over two generations for both Kim Jong IL and Kim Il Song. They starved that many people because they wanted to build up their military industrial power and to support the regime, and he said the regime did not care. If you add the number of people who had perished in the work camps, you are up to over 2 million souls.  It was on behalf of those 2 million souls that Laura Ling and Euna Lee took this risk. And without journalists taking that risk we would not know today the enormous gravity of what’s going on there.

Let’s give you one other example. Would it be worth the risk of an American journalist in the late 1930s to enter guarded Nazi Germany to document what was going on in the concentration camps there? Would it have been worth the risk to have journalists on the border to record what was actually going on?  How much more valuable it would have been to the world if the word had gotten out on what was going on in those concentration camps. But instead we did not learn about them until our own infantry went into the camps. My father took photographs there when they liberated the concentration camps…and that is when the world began to learn that six million people had perished in concentration camps.

So I would say the lesson in history is we should stand by journalists when they take the risk. When journalists are brave enough to work on behalf of humanity we should be shoulder to shoulder with them and nothing delights me more than to see them home embraced by their family.

ET:  So you agree that journalism is a vital part of freedom and democracy for everyone?

ER:  Journalism is a vital part of preserving freedom for mankind. Totalitarian regimes get away with what they do because they are able to silence the journalists in their own society and imprison them.  And unless we have activity like Radio Free Asia, and unless we have journalists brave enough to go to the borders to interview survivors and report what is happening, we would not be able to expose these regimes.

Congressman Ed Royce speaking at the North Korea Freedom Week Capitol Rally Apr. 28.
Congressman Ed Royce speaking at the North Korea Freedom Week Capitol Rally Apr. 28.

ET:  Do you think Mr. Clinton’s trip gave Kim Jong Il and his regime legitimacy?
ER:  I don’t buy that because we are broadcasting Radio Free Asia into North Korea everyday and pounding away on Kim Jong Il on the treatment he’s giving to his own people. Emphasizing that there is no freedom and the fact that he even kidnaps young women journalists who had attempted to go to bat for his own starving people.

This is not a vacuum any longer; at one time he had the ability to say anything he wanted in a vacuum.  Now we have flooded the borders with free radios, and ethnic Chinese-Korean traders take them in and distribute them all over North Korea. Today 40 percent of defectors are listening to the radio broadcasts, and even the members of the political bureau listen to them. It has given people the truth in North Korea. He’s earned a lot of free publicity off of this but not the kind he wants, about the nature of the regime and the starvation of his people.

I did a broadcast yesterday on this, and many Korean-Americans are doing broadcasts. I intend to continue to do mine so that we can have maximum impact on this regime and so that he feels the consequences.

ET:  What if those media are blocked?

ER:  Oh they try to block it, but we have a way around it. I carry funding for the largest transmitter on the world, it’s on Tinian Island, and we have a way of sending information in from several different directions, it’s exceedingly difficult for North Korea to block those broadcasts on different frequencies.

ET:  North Korea is a small and backward country, without China’s help all these years, it wouldn’t have survived till today. So when China sees that it can control America through a tiny puppet dictatorship, and they have every incentive to keep Kim Jong Il in power, do you worry about that?

ER:  It would certainly be helpful to have China cooperate with us; however, the fate is in our own hands.

We have the capacity ourselves to close the bank account in Macau, as a result Kim Jong Il would not have the money to continue its military industrial build up. The Treasury Department has done this before and that’s what brought Kim Jong Il back to the negotiating table. Treasury did this because North Korea is getting all its money or most of its money through counterfeiting hundred dollar bills. But the State Department overturned it. It is our own State Department that made the decision to re-open these accounts.

I agree with certain people in think tanks and the Treasury Department that cutting off Kim Jong Il’s money is the way to have maximum effect. Once the generals are not paid, others in the government take enormous interest in how the country is being governed. At that point you open the negotiations and I wouldn’t be surprised that Kim Jong Il himself would have some second thoughts.

ET:  What suggestion(s) would you give to president Obama and his administration when dealing with communist dictators like those in North Korea and China?

ER:  I would encourage him to look at this with a long view.  Our strategy should be the same strategy that Ronald Regan deployed with respect to the Soviet Union.  Our goal is solidarity with the people and not with the totalitarian regime. And our strategy should be to deploy methods that Regan used such as Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and negotiations like the Helsinki Accords, and/or other methods to push for human rights and to pressure the regime for internal change.

ET:  Are you familiar with the TV station called New Tang Dynasty that was broadcasting uncensored information to China?  Unfortunately their satellite signal into China was cut off.

ER:  Yes, I tried to intervene on their behalf with respect to the satellite transmission. China manipulated the situation with respect to the satellite.

It was not just broadcasts from government that helped affect change in East Europe, it was also broadcasts from private sources as well.  It is perhaps the single best strategy in terms of how to confront a communist totalitarian regime, and for change to benefit the people within that society.