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LSE students hit back over North Korea trip

Students at the London School of Economics who were on a controversial visit to North Korea with undercover BBC journalists have hit out at the university, saying it has placed them in greater danger than the trip itself.

Military parade, Pyongyang, North Korea

Six of the 10 students who took part in the visit to the secretive state have written an open letter to LSE director Craig Calhoun and chairman Peter Sutherland, criticising the decision to expose the fact that a BBC Panorama crew had accompanied them on their visit.

The university has accused the corporation of dishonesty, saying it used its students as “human shields” to sneak into the secretive state.

However, the students – Hoe-Yeong Loke, Mila Akimova and four unnamed others – have complained that the university’s decision to speak publicly about the undercover expedition, led by the Panorama presenter John Sweeney, had exposed them to threats from Pyongyang.

“We feel that we have now been put in more risk than was originally the case, as a result of the LSE’s decision to go public with their story,” write the students in a statement released on 17 April.

“When the story broke to the international media in response to a complaint about the trip, not all of us were consulted by the LSE, or their representatives, for our own accounts.

“Some of us have still not been consulted. We therefore feel compelled to establish the basic facts of the case, many of which have been distorted in the media, in this joint statement.”

The students said they were told in London that a journalist would accompany them and that they risked deportation or detention if they were exposed.

In Beijing, before they flew to Pyongyang, they were informed that Mr Sweeney was the journalist and that he worked for the BBC, they said.

They were also joined by Sweeney’s wife, Tomiko Newson, who organised the trip, and a BBC cameraman.

However, the claims have been rejected by Robin Hoggard, the LSE’s head of external relations, who stood by the institution’s claims that students had not been informed of the full risks of the trip.

In an email to the six LSE students, he said: “We believe you were told enough [by the BBC] to get you into trouble but not enough to let you make an informed decision about the risks.

“If the BBC had laid out the full risks and sought consent in writing, we suspect there would have been second thoughts,” he added.

“All this is by the by. All 10 of you were deliberately deceived, by the BBC’s own admission. You weren’t in a position to give informed consent.

“As none of us in the LSE administration was present at any stage, we can only say that the facts are disputed – fiercely.”

The infiltration by Mr Sweeney posed greater problems to the LSE than just the safety of the students concerned, Mr Hoggard added.

“It isn’t just about you. What the BBC have done has had implications for not just the whole LSE community, perhaps especially our academics, but for LSE as an institution and for independent academics more widely,” he said.

The email follows reports from one of the students who claimed she was conned into believing Mr Sweeney was a history professor until the trip to North Korea was almost over.

Sweeney’s Panorama film, North Korea Undercover, received 348 complaints to the BBC since the public row broke out. Of these, about 150 were made before the documentary was broadcast.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

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