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Imprisoned by Kim Jong Il

Opinion: Politics, bad judgment, or something else?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il waves to soldiers at a military gathering in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this picture released by North Korean news agency KCNA March 21, 2009. (Reuters)

Remember the Pueblo? North Korea’s leaders surely do, as they wait to see when Americans’ humanitarian concern for two imprisoned reporters will overwhelm strategic policy considerations in Washington.

After the capture of the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo off the North Korean port of Wonson on Jan. 21, 1968, Americans’ overriding interest proved to be the safety of the crew. President Lyndon B. Johnson told an aide that the U.S. would “do anything to get those men back — including meeting naked in the middle of the street at high noon, if that’s what it takes.”

It took something almost as humiliating: an official written apology, issued even though U.S. data showed the ship had been in international waters when attacked. The North Koreans let the crew go — but they still keep the Pueblo. The ship serves them both as a trophy propaganda stop on the typical itinerary of tourists visiting Pyongyang and as a reminder, whenever needed, of how far Washington may be tempted to veer from principle if American citizens get caught up in foreign intrigue.

Fast-forward to now. Just as the Obama administration starts to crank up harder-line measures in response to North Korea’s missile and nuclear test provocations, the two senators from California have called upon the president to send a special envoy to secure the release of their constituents Laura Ling and Euna Lee. A North Korean court last week sentenced the two reporters for San Francisco’s Current TV to 12 years hard labor for intruding illegally in order to film what the country’s official news agency termed a “slanderous” expose of the trafficking of women.

What would a special envoy offer in return for the women’s release? Money is one thing that North Korea, with its wrecked economy, would likely demand. Should the U.S. pay? The United Nations Security Council has just agreed — following Washington’s leadership — to choke off sources of funding that could help Kim Jong Il develop his weapons of mass destruction, make North Korea even more threatening to its neighbors and proliferate weaponry and technology to U.S. foes in other parts of the world.

Perhaps it is useful first to contemplate the extent to which the two journalists might have brought this situation on themselves. Did they ignore the predictable effects of their actions on larger U.S. interests and on other individuals — who, on their account, may have gotten into far worse trouble than they are in themselves?

Consider, in other words, whether this was a case of reckless endangerment.

Start with the fact that we are not hearing denials from the women’s family and supporters that they illegally intruded into North Korea, crossing a frozen border river. Rather, we’re hearing apologies for any inadvertent offense the two might have committed.