The New York Times describes a very careful attempt at trying to tease a bone away from a savage dog. The bone in this case are two US journalists who have been sentenced to prison in a North Korean penal camp. The dog in this instance is the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.
WASHINGTON — President Obama and his top national security aides on Monday urged North Korea to release “on humanitarian grounds” two American journalists sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for entering North Korean territory. But administration officials said that the harsh sentences were likely to be used as a negotiating ploy by the North as it tries to avoid new sanctions in response to its nuclear test two weeks ago. …
Administration officials appeared to be weighing whether to send a special envoy in a high-profile effort to seek the release of the two women, who were detained by North Korean soldiers at the Chinese border on March 17. … But the White House declined to talk about that option, and Mr. Gore has largely kept quiet, perhaps in hopes of not hardening the North’s position. Mr. Richardson said it was too early for Mr. Obama to send a personal representative.
“Talk of an envoy is premature, because what first has to happen is a framework for negotiations on a potential humanitarian release,” Mr. Richardson told NBC News. “What we would try to seek would be some kind of a political pardon.”
American officials said they feared that any discussions with the North about the release of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee could get caught up in the Byzantine politics of succession in the North Korean capital.
The Administration is apparently trying to de-link the arrest of the two American journalists from the nuclear confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington. Quite naturally, the diplomats don’t want Laura Ling or Euna Lee caught in the middle. So they are trying to cut them out of the larger deal and settle the issue within a smaller framework they are trying to construct. Maybe the package will involve a prisoner swap or the release of some asset, but the main idea is to keep Ling and Lee out of the nuclear sanctions problem. In principle it makes sense. In practice, not so much. The problem of course, is that is precisely what the Dear Leader wants them for: to mix them up with the nuclear issue. The men in Pyongyang can read the New York Times just as well as anyone else. They know that President Obama is trying to set an exchange up as a side deal. For that reason they will keep sweeping Ling and Lee into the center of the table.
The alternative course of action is to up the ante. To act as if the two journalists were of no importance at all to Washington and to pick up on charges of jaywalking, spitting on the sidewalk or the illegal possession of an ugly face, any and all loose change that Pyongyang may have roaming all over the world. Every agent, every tramp steamer, everything that doesn’t have diplomatic immunity until Pyongyang asks Washington to stop. That’s when they can mention Ling and Lee. But that would be an extremely painful and risky course of action to take; one which may result in the death or ill-treatment of the two journalists. And in the end it may fail. North Korea’s twisted sense of entitlement may have in fact made them irrational. They may hold on to the two women simply out of spite if the Dear Leader is insulted in any shape, way or form.
In a sense, the plight of Ling and Lee are a reflection in miniature of the dilemmas with dealing with North Korea. Be nice to them, appeal for clemency, release prisoners to secure the freedom of hostages — and they will do the dirty again. Cross Pyongyang, raise the ante, dare them to draw — and you risk escalating the conflict to a level that nobody can calculate. I don’t know what the right course is. But on a human level men who act like Kim Jong Il and force those they encounter to pay up or else will find 99 of a hundred willing to back down instead of risking an all out fight. But sooner or later they’ll meet the hundredth; who will listen to their threats and bluster with cold eyes and then shoot Kim in the knees regardless of the hostages. I do not think Barack Obama will do this. But someday Kim will push his luck too far. People like him always do.