Big Bucks for the Ex-Prisoners of Pyongyang?

Now that Al Gore's two jailed employees have been retrieved by Bill Clinton from North Korea, there's talk of a seven-figure book deal for their story, with the U.K's Daily Mail speculating about a movie deal to follow. It would be interesting to hear in full the tale of Laura Ling and Euna Lee. But from the little we have heard so far, it seems at least one of them  -- Laura Ling --  did deliberately cross into North Korea.

This was folly of enormous magnitude. That act has already cost Americans, by way of winning for Kim Jong Il the propaganda coup of snapping his fingers and having a former U.S. president jet in for an audience with Kim in Pyongyang. Whether additional ransom or concessions to Kim were involved, we wait to find out -- but it would come as no surprise. Did Ling and Lee, both described as journalists, not notice that the border in the area where they were traveling is edged every few hundred yards with sentry huts, manned by armed North Korean guards?

While no one deserves the terror of being subjected to North Korea's version of "justice," there is something that feels simply wrong about the prospect that the two women, now safely home, stand to make a killing out of their story. In the end, they got out; it is less clear whether some of their contacts in China were so lucky. Veteran North Korea-watcher Joshua Stanton notes on his terrifically informative blog, One Free Korea , that among activists helping North Korean refugees, there's big concern that materials Ling and Lee had on them when they were captured might have led to North Korean refugees being nabbed in China and sent back to North Korea. These folks cannot expect the relatively soft handling which Kim apparently reserved for his American prisoners; nor can they expect Bill Clinton to race back over in his private jet and airlift them out to sell their book and movie rights.

And whatever the details, the basic arithmetic here is that anything which helps fortify the Kim Jong Il regime is bad news inside the borders of North Korea -- where Kim's gulag carries on, with its starvation rations and murderous sentences of hard labor.

In another illuminating post, put up April 7th, Stanton ran through a list of what we might reasonably expect from Ling and Lee, now that they are home. This included the advice:

"If you did cross the border voluntarily, mortgage your homes now and start writing checks to repay the taxpayers for whatever your ransom cost us."  

That sounds reasonable. Though in light of the talk now circulating about a payola of book and movie deals, I have another suggestion. It would be entirely fitting for Laura Ling and Euna Lee to donate whatever money they make from their story to some of the private charitable organizations whose staff -- often at considerable sacrifice -- dedicate themselves to genuinely helping the North Korean refugees whom these two women set out to write about.