North Korea’s Body Snatchers

Last Thursday, North Korea announced that the trial of two American reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, will begin on June 4. Pyongyang’s soldiers snatched the pair on March 17 while they were, according to conflicting reports, in North Korea, in China, or wading across the Tumen River, which forms part of the border between the two countries. The young journalists, working for Current TV of San Francisco, were reporting on refugees fleeing Kim Jong Il’s paradise. Last month, Ling and Lee were charged with illegal entry and hostile acts and could spend at least five years in prison.


The two reporters are not the only foreigners facing hard time in Kim Jong Il’s gulag state. In March, Pyongyang detained a South Korean manager working in the Kaesong industrial zone, a collaborative Seoul-Pyongyang project located just north of the demilitarized zone. Yu Song-jin was charged with making derogatory comments about the Kimist paradise.

Is Chairman Kim taking hostages to get what he wants from the international community? At the moment, Pyongyang is engaged in standoffs with both the United States and South Korea, and the three detainees look like they have become bargaining chips. Of course, we should not be surprised. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Kim uses his 23 million people as hostages.

And from his point of view, foreign captives are better than domestic ones. Kim learned this lesson, unfortunately, earlier in the decade. In September 2002, he confirmed to then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that rogue North Koreans agents — are there any other kind? — had abducted thirteen Japanese citizens from 1977 to 1983 to obtain language and culture instruction for Pyongyang’s undercover agents. Five of the abductees were still alive, Kidnapper Kim said, and many believe the others were as well. He had tried to use them to obtain from Japan something like $10 billion in reparations, which Koizumi was evidently willing to hand over. Had it not been for an outraged Japanese public, led by the frail mother of one of the abductees, Mr. Kim would have walked away with a very large stash.


At this moment, there may be a hundred or more Japanese abductees. There are at least a thousand South Koreans, some of them prisoners from the Korean War and others abducted since then, confined in North Korea. On one level, the international community should be trying to free all these foreigners, but so far Kim has been able to stymie both Tokyo and Seoul. For now, the United States and South Korea are devoting their efforts to springing just three prisoners — Ling, Lee, and Yu.

Unfortunately, neither Washington nor Seoul is getting anywhere at this moment. Mr. Yu, in particular, is in an unenviable position. South Korea has been calling for dialogue with its northern twin, but Pyongyang is being especially stubborn. The two Koreas recently spent 11 hours arranging the first official talks in more than a year, but, when they finally met last month, the session lasted all of 22 minutes. The breakdown was attributed in part to disagreements over the unfortunate Mr. Yu. Since then, Pyongyang has broken its agreements concerning Kaesong and demanded more money, probably to make up for the loss of aid from South Korea and other international donors.

The prospect for the release of Ling and Lee appears brighter. Some have argued that the North is using their detention to trigger direct dialogue with the United States. The theory is that Pyongyang, due to considerations of face, cannot initiate discussions with Washington. Yet the confinement of Ling and Lee provides an opportunity for the two capitals to talk. In fact, that is what they are now doing in back-channel negotiations, some involving what has become known as the “New York Connection.” Optimists argue that behind-the-scenes communications can be broadened to discussions to restart the now-moribund six-party disarmament talks hosted by Beijing. From there, some contend, it is possible to reach a “grand bargain” and an enduring peace in North Asia.


Is there any evidence that the two reporters will be released soon? Secretary of State Clinton has been making surprisingly upbeat statements about the Ling-Lee matter, saying she welcomed the announcement of their trial date and looked forward to a quick conclusion to legal proceedings.

And can the freeing of Ling and Lee lead to peace on the Korean peninsula? Anything is possible, but it is more likely that there will be less favorable outcomes. After all, Washington has been engaging in feckless diplomacy since 2003 to no good result. Since the beginning of the six-party talks in August of that year, North Korea has stalled, lied, and tested two long-range missiles and one small nuclear device.

As well as nabbed foreigners. Fortunately, in this period Pyongyang’s economy has stalled. Kim’s recent moves to increase his share of cash from Kaesong — shall we call it extortion? — betray a hint of desperation. If he is in fact desperate, then it would be time to take advantage of his plight by getting Seoul to abandon Kaesong, thereby cutting off an important source of support for his regime. South Korea has said it wants talks on Kaesong, but it has also stated it will not rule out abandoning the zone, once hailed as a model of cooperation between the two Korean states.


Washington’s generous initiatives, made at Beijing’s urging, have not worked. In fact, they have undercut our own objectives. First, our diplomacy has fractured the critical alliance with Japan because Tokyo believes — correctly — that we have not supported its efforts to get a full accounting from Pyongyang on the abductee matter. Second, our commitment to unproductive talks has given the North the one thing it needed most to become a nuclear weapons state: time.

It’s high time we stopped listening to North Korea’s only formal ally — China — and started acting in our own interests, don’t you think? Kim, unfortunately, has interpreted our recent policies as signs of weakness. If we want to free Yu, Ling, and Lee — and avoid future kidnappings — we need to change course and start acting like a superpower again. Kim is a thug, and the only thing he understands is strength. You don’t see him kidnapping Chinese and Russian nationals, after all.


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