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.
Journalists’ groups, noting the harshness of the sentences, have appealed to the North Korean regime for clemency — I personally contributed to the language of one such appeal — but it’s doubtful that many in our trade who have followed the issue are convinced Ling and Lee are entirely in the right.
Seeking and reporting the truth, however loathsome the reported truth shows the regime to be, is one thing. We must do it, and that has been the goal of a number of journalists including myself who have devoted much of our careers to reporting on North Korea.
But it’s quite another matter if these two women gave Kim’s regime a new hold over their own country’s strategic policy-making for the sake of getting merely a better camera angle — or, more questionable still, just to be able to boast of their fearlessness.
Further, assuming the North Korean authorities were able to use the women’s captured notes, their testimony and the contents of their camera and cell phones to identify opponents of the regime who had helped the reporters on the Chinese side of the river, those helpers could now be in grave peril from North Korean agents who are tasked with hunting them down. That’s the sort of thing conscientious journalists would not like to have on their consciences.
We will hear protests that the two, besides being fearless, were simply naive. While that may be true of one of them, Lee, who reportedly was on her first overseas assignment, Ling, the Current TV vice president in charge of organizing coverage of dangerous places, should have had ample warning of the risks of sneaking into North Korea — risks not only to herself but to others. (Current TV had no comment for this story).
In an eerie precedent now three years old, viewers including myself wondered how Ling’s own elder sister, celebrity journalist Lisa Ling, and a Nepalese medical mission she teamed up with could justify pretending she was a humanitarian aid worker so that she could sneak into the country and make a 2006 National Geographic documentary.
In a review on the National Geographic documentary’s Amazon.com web page Aloysius O’Neill, a retired State Department official who worked on North Korean issues for large parts of his career, wrote of his concern for North Koreans whom Lisa Ling had duped and then in some cases filmed.
“Even unwittingly contributing to a story that would be seen as criticizing the Kim cult of personality could have severe consequences for North Korean medical personnel and others who helped the visitors,” O’Neill wrote. “It would be reprehensible if National Geographic took chances with other people’s lives to get an eye-catching story.”
Another reviewer, A.O. Sheepfielder of Chicago, raised a related issue: “Didn’t it occur to Lisa Ling and National Geographic that, by cloaking themselves in the mantle of humanitarian aid to film a forbidden documentary, they might severely jeopardize any future humanitarian efforts?”
In the present case of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, there may well be good reason for former vice president Al Gore, one of the founders of Current TV, to go to Pyongyang in a private capacity and request their release — at high noon or any other time, clothed or unclothed.
Twelve years is a long sentence — even if, as I imagine will be the case, the women are kept in the nicest of the country’s prisons so as to minimize the sensational revelations they might be in a position to make after their release.
But President Obama should resist the pressure for him to designate an official envoy, a move that would likely confuse broad national interests with the legitimate — but in the larger scheme of things, I’m sorry to have to say, less important — concern for these two women’s welfare.
GlobalPost's North Korea columnist Bradley K. Martin is a 30-year veteran Asia correspondent for organizations including Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, Asia Times and, most recently, Bloomberg News. The author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty," he currently watches North Korea from Nagano, Japan.
Read more about North Korea:
Will the North fire at South Korean targets?
Decoding North Korea
Opinion: Time to encourage Japan and South Korea to go nuclear?