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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Detainees and Envoys

by | April 30th, 2013 | 07:00 am
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There is a pattern of North Korea exploiting the detention of American citizens—often as a result of their own naïveté, we should add—to secure visits from high-ranking special envoys. It is much less clear what benefits North Korea has managed to reap from this ritual. The visit of Google’s Erik Schmidt is an example: the North Korean leadership seemed more interested in the kowtow than in substance and seemed to almost willfully pass up the opportunity.

It appears that we are about to see a replay of this dance; perhaps both sides can do better. On Saturday, KCNA reported that Kenneth Bae will go before the high court for sentencing on charges that he committed crimes that aimed to “topple the DPRK.” Bae entered Rajin with a group of five tourists in November and has been in prison since; suspicions have centered on the fact that Bae is a Christian—as other detainees have been—and on material on his hard drive.  Former Governor Bill Richardson delivered a letter regarding Bae during his January trip with Schmidt but with no success. Will he be tapped to make the trip yet again?

The pattern is not new. In 2009, Bill Clinton made the trek to Pyongyang to secure the release of US television journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Ling and Lee had been sentenced to 12 years at hard labor after straying into the country in the course of making a documentary on human rights abuses and refugees. It is not clear how you stray into North Korea, but Ling and Lee subsequently portrayed themselves as human rights heroes; both wrote books about the incident.

In 2010, Jimmy Carter had to issue an apology to Kim Yong Nam to secure the release Aijalon Mahli Gomes; Gomes had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegally entering the country. The Gomes case followed close on the heels of the saga of Robert Park, who had also entered the country illegally carrying a Bible and letters demanding that Kim Jong-il close the gulag and step down. Park’s claims about abuse at the hands of the North Koreans—although credible to us–turned into a media spectacle (John Rodgers outlines the sad tale). Park subsequently went on to press the case that North Korean human rights abuses should be viewed through the lens of the genocide convention.

In 2011, a US delegation led by Robert King, the US special envoy for human rights and humanitarian issues, secured the release of Eddie Jun Yong-Su, a California-based businessman, who had apparently detained for apparent missionary activities. That case was complicated by the fact that Ambassador King was simultaneously tasked with sorting out whether the US should resume food aid to the country.

In his policy memoir, Obama and China’s Rise, Jeff Bader outlines what the Ling and Lee case looked like from the government’s perspective given the difficult nature of US-DPRK relations in that first year. “We all felt a sense of relief that the journalists, who had been mistreated, were safe and sound. We also felt considerable irritation at American innocents abroad who stumble into such situations as if they were in downtown LA and then expect to be saved, without regard to the damage they do to US national security interests. The possibility of repeat performances by other gullible or misguided Americans, putting us in a similar box, worried us, and rightly so, although subsequent incidents did not involve as “valuable” a prize as Ling and Lee were.” Ouch.

What puzzles us, however, is the inability of the North Koreans to actually exploit these humanitarian releases to any diplomatic purpose. The release of Ling and Lee was followed by a brief moment of diplomatic hope before relations once again soured in early 2010, capped by the sinking of the Cheonan. But the other envoys got little beyond the release of their hapless charges.

Given how bad things have gotten, maybe the leadership will exploit the Bae case to send some more constructive messages. And maybe our envoy can send one. We are not holding our breath. Melanie Kirkpatrick’s chilling review of the David Sneddon case reminds us that this is a regime that not only sentences proselytizing Christians to hard labor but is not above outright abduction.