I love senior statesmen!

by Julie G.

My heart is bursting with the news that journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee have been freed from North Korea. They had been sentenced in June for 12 years in a hard labor prison for the crime of "committing hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry." They were arrested at the country's border with China. 

Clintonil Ling is 31 and was on her first international assignment with Current TV, the channel for which she was filming. Lee is 36 and has a four year old daughter.

Their arrest, sentencing, and subsequent release was part of the on-going nuclear politics that has pitted North Korea against its cousin, Japan, and the U.S. Less ideologically framed worry emanates from China and Russia, although both responded with concern to N. Korea's May testing of a nuclear device (and have implemented sanctions against the country).

Clinton (Bill) was acting as "a private citizen" when he flew over on a jet owned and volunteered by a long-time Democratic Party supporter. He was requested by the North Koreans. He did this even after the North Korean foreign minister called Clinton's wife (who happens to be our Secretary of State) a "funny lady" who sometimes looks like a "pensioner going shipping."

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There's a great deal of debate swirling about what promises Mr. Clinton made for the trade, although the Obama crew has been assiduous about making clear that this was a purely private affair.

As to North Korea, perhaps there is an opportunity for circumstances to become less fraught and that this "good will" gesture is a way to reach out with honor. Kim Jong-Il reportedly has pancreatic cancer and there are signs that the party oligarchy is splitting in a power struggle.

North Korea is, as far as I can tell, the only totalitarian regime working today — totalitarian in the political sciency sense of an ideologically based regime that endeavors to control all political, economic, social, and cultural life. They spend a great deal of time forcibly "re-educating" their population, 1984 style (think room 101). Distribution of banned books, the Bible, for example, is punishable by death. A woman was recently publicly executed for such a crime and her entire family sent to a prison camp the day after her execution. This is a regime that rivals those of Stalin and Mao for brutality (I do not engage in hyperbole when selecting those names). I imagine, if/when the country opens up and archives might be opened, we will be astounded by the death toll and fret uselessly about why we didn't even think about the crimes being committed for the literally decades they occurred. The Washington Post ran an astoundingly chilling article in the midst of the journalist debacle.

*photo credits: 1.) KCNA, through the AP, from the NYT slideshow 2.) Getty Images, from the coverage in the Washington Post

** posted by Julie G.

12 thoughts on “I love senior statesmen!

  1. Am I the only one who is resentful of the two journalists for putting our entire nation in this position? Why were they in North Korea to begin with? It feels to me like we were forced to basically recognize a totalitarian entity based on these women crossing the border.

  2. Jen, I know what you mean. They were doing a story on the border — it could be that the entry into N. Korea was accidental or even fabricated.
    Bill Clinton had a good negotiating strategy with the N. Koreans that Bush altered with the “Axis of Evil” speech and policy. Not to say that a hardline against the North Koreans was unwarranted, but the N. Koreans responded negatively to the new stance.
    There is some indication that the N. Koreans grabbed these two as a way to create a new interaction between the U.S. and N. Korea.
    That, and I think that journalists covering this sort of thing — i.e., totalitarian states — are doing an important and highly dangerous job. This is how we continue to know about the politics of these countries.

  3. What about Burma? (James Fallows writes that N Korea might be proliferating nuclear technology with the government there; NorKs and SLORCS, Tolkien would probably not be amused) Can absolute monarchies (Saudi Arabia) count as totalitarian?
    Similar things happen all too often. A friend of mine who does human rights stuff for the German parliament was part of the effort to fish a couple of Christian relief workers out of Afghanistan a few years back. They ran afoul of the local authorities for proselytizing; officially, the Germans maintained that they were doing no such thing. My friend’s comment? “Hell yes they were proselytizing.”

  4. I just don’t buy the “accidental or fabricated entry” line of reasoning. Is not the Korean border reinforced by the demilitarized zone – a no-man’s land *four kilometers wide*, edged by razor wire? Patrolled on both sides by armed soldiers, etc? How could the North Koreans get their mitts on these journalists if they weren’t in North Korea?

  5. You know, Jen, that’s an interesting point — I think the border with China is much less guarded than the one with South Korea. Certainly that is one that is demilitarized. But I could be wrong on this one.
    As to Burma, good point Doug. I think the degree of control is less overwhelming there (fewer re-education programs) sufficient to classify it as firmly authoritarian.
    Monarchies are not totalitarian, since they are not ideological. Totalitarian regimes are differentiated in poli. sci. as being utopian. Saudi Arabia is a garden variety authoritarian regime. Not to diminish the hardships there, however. It’s a classification difference, mostly, not a “life su#ks more here” sort of thing. Although totalitarian regimes often are more deadly to their populations, since they have a legitimizing mission to perfect society.

  6. Julie G. is right, The NK boarder with China is nothing like the southern boarder DMZ. It’s mountainous and rural in some places and you can apparently float right up to it on a river and snap pictures according to the links in this post:
    http://www.freekorea.us/2009/06/17/n-korea-ling-and-lee-filmed-themselves-entering-north-korea/#more-8599
    I went to college with a girl who’s family had escaped from North Korea to China when she was a toddler. She had emigrated here from China shortly before starting High School. She says her parents wouldn’t discuss the trip across the boarder at all except to say that it was “difficult” and that her grandmother didn’t survive. She never even found out how her grandmother died or how her parents crossed over. They would not talk about it at all, not even to answer the most basic questions. Her theory was that her grandmother may not have died, but had been captured and the thought of her suffering in a forced labor camp or having been executed was too much for her parents to bear so they literally never mentioned the incident again. She does know that her father had been threatened because of something to do with his business relationship with China and that was what prompted them to leave. Beyond that, she knows almost nothing of her life there.

  7. Jen, I found this article on the China/North Korea border. I can’t speak to whether Ling and Lee crossed the border deliberately, but it does sound like there is a possibility that North Korean agents could have seized them on Chinese soil.

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