Tuesday, June 9, 2009
LAURA LING and Euna Lee are American journalists who traveled to northern China in March to tackle a tough and important story: the trafficking of North Korean women to China. Their work would have been risky at any time. But the two reporters for San Francisco-based Current TV happened to undertake their mission at a time when North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is seeking to provoke the Obama administration. The result: Ms. Ling, 32, and Ms. Lee, 36, were taken prisoner by North Korea on March 17 in as-yet-unexplained circumstances and yesterday were sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp by one of Mr. Kim's courts. They are, in a very real sense, hostages -- condemned to be separated from their families and confined in what may be harsh conditions until a regime that seeks political and economic concessions from Washington chooses to release them.
The treatment of these courageous women ought to give pause to those who argue that North Korea is susceptible to offers of "engagement"; that it seeks normal political and economic relations with the United States and other Western countries. In holding the women, Mr. Kim -- who in the past two months has also violated multiple U.N. resolutions by firing a long-range missile and detonating a nuclear warhead -- is demonstrating that his regime has changed little since the days when it systematically abducted citizens of Japan and other countries. No wonder the Japanese government yesterday urged the Obama administration to put North Korea back on the State Department's list of terrorism sponsors. The designation was lifted last year by the Bush administration in a desperate effort to keep alive negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program, but Pyongyang never delivered on the reciprocal steps it promised.
To its credit, the Obama administration has been signaling that it will not respond to Mr. Kim's provocations by offering bribes, as the previous two administrations did. The North Korean dictator has fallen into a routine of provoking a crisis whenever he needs fresh aid or wants to shore up his domestic political position; that pattern needs to be broken. Humanitarian considerations in the case of these two journalists could justify the dispatch of a special envoy to obtain their release; former vice president Al Gore, the co-founder of Current TV, would be a logical choice. But no ransom of economic aid or political concessions should be given. Instead, the administration should find ways to squeeze the regime financially -- as the Bush administration did at one time -- and press China to support substantial U.N. sanctions or use its considerable bilateral leverage over Pyongyang. One good way for Beijing to send a message would be to relax controls along the border and invite international aid workers to assist the desperate women and other refugees whom Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling were investigating. Mr. Kim could not endure such a policy for long.