Twelve years of hard labor is the “sentence” just handed by a North Korean “court” to the two American journalists snatched in March by North Korean soldiers along the Chinese border.
This punishment has nothing to do with justice. There is no system of justice in North Korea. The two reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, have become hostages in the latest round of North Korea’s long-running shakedown of the U.S. and South Korea.
Though shakedown is really too simple a word for North Korea’s international three-ring circus of rackets, extortion, and WMD pursuit and proliferation. This is a totalitarian state which counterfeits U.S. currency, has a long record of its own diplomats peddling narcotics out of its embassies, and which, after signing on to a nuclear freeze deal in February, 2007, went on helping Syria build a secret nuclear reactor (destroyed in September, 2007 by an Israeli air strike, for which we should be profoundly grateful).
Just last month, North Korea conducted its second illicit nuclear test in three years. This followed a ballistic missile test in April, which North Korea described as the launch of a satellite broadcasting “immortal revolutionary paeans” … except it seems there was no such satellite.
Such tests serve the dual purpose for North Korea of advertising its munitions services and capabilities to clients such as Syria and Iran, while positioning North Korea to extort fresh bribes and concessions from the U.S. when all concerned return to the bargaining table.
Which is where the magical thinkers of both the Obama adminstration and the UN would have us believe this can all be dealt with.
North Korea is an old hand at this kind of extortion, which amounts to a big game of chicken — in which the U.S. and allies habitually flinch. Over the past 15 years, Kim has exploited this routine to mind-bending effect. First there was the Agreed Framework nuclear freeze deal, conceived in 1994 by Jimmy Carter and executed by President Clinton, in which North Korea got free fuel and food, plus the promise of two modern nuclear reactors. Those were under construction in North Korea, when Kim was caught cheating. Then there were the Six-Party Talks under President Bush, in which North Korea was removed from the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring states, got free fuel and food, plus a U.S. Fed-facilitated transfer of $25 million in allegedly crime-and proliferation-tainted cash (as a handy demonstration that the U.S. was so eager to deal with Pyongyang that Washington would over-ride its own sanctions). North Korea cheated and reneged.
Now it’s Obama’s turn to deal with this totalitarian thug state. And to the faceless hundreds of thousands of North Koreans consigned to the horrendous prison camps of North Korea, Pyongyang is now proposing to add two Americans — described by North Korea’s KCNA state news agency as convicted of “committing hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry.” Translation: Kim Jong Il, while gloating over his missiles and nuclear projects, and counting the U.S. largesse that has recently poured in, both directly and via the UN, now awaits the diplomatic tip-toeing to the table, plus a ransom offer for the two Americans.
A word about the border area along the Tumen River, where the two American reporters were grabbed by North Korea. The exact circumstances of their capture are not clear. But it seems safe to say that North Korea was being, at the very least, selective in its choice of whom to grab.
I visited that general area last September, where the Tumen River marks the border between China and North Korea. Here’s a column I wrote upon return for Forbes.com, “Bordering on Tyranny.” I stayed in the city of Tumen — which sits right on the river — and drove along the river for miles, both north and south. On the North Korean side, there are sentry huts, with armed guards, every few hundred yards — some of them half-hidden in foliage along the river bank. The main function of these sentries is not to keep people out, but to keep North Koreans in — a function abetted on the Chinese side by a huge detention facility for North Koreans who manage to cross over, but get caught, and are returned to North Korea, in some cases to harsh punishment. Which tells you a lot about the degree of unsavory cooperation along this border between China and North Korea.
In the Chinese city of Tumen, there’s plenty of activity not only on the riverbank — which has a long promenade — but on the river itself. The road bridge across the river, connecting Tumen with North Korea, is a tourist spot. No kidding. Next to the Chinese border post at the Tumen end of the bridge, there’s a parking lot, with a row of souvenir stands. I watched Chinese tour buses pull in there daily, and unload groups of sight-seers, mostly Chinese or South Korean. For a fee, the Chinese border guards let the tourists stroll onto the bridge, right up to a line that marks the crossing. They pose for photos, with the North Korean border post in the not-so distant background.
I watched some of these tourists go down to the river’s edge, where you can hire a boat, don a bright orange life jacket, and be punted along the Tumen river. Some of these punt boats, carrying rows of tourists, not only went up and down the river — they went across. They went way beyond that border marking on the bridge above. They got so close to the North Korean riverbank that the passengers could have stepped off into the North Korean weeds without getting their feet wet. There was no way the North Korean guards wouldn’t have noticed — these folks were dressed up in neon orange. No one grabbed them. They punted back, got in their bus and drove off.