American Journalists Freed: Future of U.S.-N. Korea Relations

American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee express their thanks and gratitude to President Clinton and his team for securing their release from North Korea. The women were jailed for four months for allegedly entering the country illegally. Video by AP
Gordon Chang
Asia Expert and Author
Wednesday, August 5, 2009; 12:00 PM

Two American journalists detained for nearly five months in North Korea were reunited with their families on American soil Wednesday morning, leaving behind what one of them called "the nightmare of our lives" after a carefully negotiated rescue mission by former U.S. president Bill Clinton.

Gordon Chang, an Asia expert, contributing analyst to CNN and Fox News and author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World" (2006) was online Wednesday, Aug. 5, at Noon ET to discuss the release of the journalists and the possible effects the negotiation may have on future U.S.-N. Korea relations.

Although the White House and the State Department steadfastly insisted that the former president -- the husband of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton -- was on a "private humanitarian mission," the trip came about only after weeks of back-channel conversations involving academics, congressional figures, and senior White House and State Department officials, said sources involved in the planning.


Gordon Chang: Hi, I am Gordon Chang. Laura Ling and Euna Lee are back safely in the United States after five months in captivity. President Clinton went to Pyongyang to secure their release. This is a good day for the journalists, their families, and the United States.

What does all this mean for our relations with North Korea. And what happens next?


Washington, D.C.: Will the release of Ling and Lee lead to any thaw in U.S.-North Korean relations, and to resuming nuclear talks, or is it just a momentary public relations coup where both sides got something they wanted?

Gordon Chang: Will there be a thaw? We have to remember that Kim Jong Ill needed to release the journalists. The longer he kept them, the more the world looked at North Korea's legal system and the more people thought the regime was cruel. So, although this was a gesture of friendship, it was also an act of self-interest.

There will be further discussion between the U.S. and Pyongyang, but there have been structural reasons why relations between the two countries have been bad for the last 60 years. Those reasons remain.


D.C.: Is it a good idea for the U.S. to make a habit of intervening when U.S. citizens violate the laws of foreign countries, or is it better to let them serve justice in those countries? Was the case of Ling and Lee exceptional in this regard, because it violated so many international legal standards, or should the U.S. make a point of trying to impose American legal standards on other nations?

Gordon Chang: The U.S. government has a responsibility to protect its citizens, especially from arbitrary and secret prosecutions. Their detention and jailings violated every standard of justice, so this is not a question of the U.S. imposing its standards on others.

It is not clear that the journalists were in North Korea when they were apprehended. First reports indicated they were in China and abducted by North Korean border guards.


Kingstowne, Va.: It is great that the journalists are finally back in the U.S. It will be good to finally hear the journalists' side of the story in regards to why they crossed the border illegally.

Is there any way to keep American citizens (journalists or otherwise) from putting U.S. interests at risk by crossing international borders into hostile territories (N. Korea, Iran)?

Gordon Chang: We live in a free society, and it is not possible for the U.S. government to prevent American citizens from crossing over any such borders.

In any event, it is not clear they illegally crossed into North Korea.


Baltimore, Md.: Do you think there's any chance that North Korea will become more open and less repressive after Kim Jong Il is gone? I never thought the Soviet Union would disintegrate, but it did. Is there any hope for the North Korean people?

Gordon Chang: The regime is going to get worse in all probability as hardliners in the military continue to gain political power. Kim has been ceding power to them in return for their support for his plans to have one of his sons follow him as supreme leader.

The hope for the North Korean people is that the regime fails. In the later part of last decade, as the famine engulfed the country, the government withdrew from the lives of the people. For about four or five years, many North Koreans lived without any government. Then, they were truly free. Since then, Kim has tried to rein in society, and he has been succeeding.


Wokingham, U.K.: If the NK regime is now really afraid that international opinion will think it cruel then surely, since cruelty at an almost absurdist level is necessary to keep it going, its end is nigh? I don't mean to hide from the fact that Western societies are more cruel than they think they are.

Gordon Chang: The regime is at risk, but I don't think it is on the verge of collapse. Sometimes, repressive systems can be stable, especially when people do not have the means to resist.


Harrisburg, Pa.: What does the North Korean leadership want? Why do they allow their citizens to remain without adequate food resources? Why doesn't the leadership try to do more to help their own people? I would think a leadership want wish to have a better legacy for their people to remember them by.

Gordon Chang: Why doesn't Kim do more for his people? Destitute people by and large do not start successful revolutions. Kim looks at China and does not want to end up like his Chinese counterparts: living in a walled compound and insecure about their continued rule.


New York, N.Y.: Should the success of this approach -- a one-on-one talk -- mean that the U.S. should reconsider insisting on multi-nation talks on other issues. Perhaps because the N. Korean leadership needs, for internal reasons, to only have one-on-one negotiations?

Gordon Chang: The Bush administration's insistence on multilateral talks is a product of the perception, then almost universally shared, that bilateral negotiations conferred important advantages to the North Koreans. So while the Bush diplomats did have private conversations with Pyongyang, they tried to make sure that most discussions took place with others in the room.

My view is that the format of the talks does not matter as much as other factors. If, for instance, Washington can line up support beforehand, it does not matter what format is used to converse with Pyongyang.


Fairfax, Va.: Where were the two journalists holed up while they were in N. Korea? They weren't yet jailed, were they? Where were they put? Were they mistreated? Were they brainwashed?

Gordon Chang: They were held in a guesthouse in Pyongyang, not in a labor camp. They were not physically abused or brainwashed, but they suffered nonetheless. They were held in such a manner so as to increase mental stress.

They looked relieved to be back, don't you think?


Bellevue, Wash.: Good afternoon. Do you think it likely that President Obama actually did send a message via Bill Clinton? I hope he did; we haven't had an 'in' like this in some time. I don't blame him for denying it if it happened; it wouldn't be helpful politically to say so, but I have to believe there was more to the discussion than just the journalists. What do you think?

Gordon Chang: I am sure President Obama conveyed messages through Bill, and it was appropriate to do so. Of course, we don't know if the content of those messages reflected smart policy.

In a few months, I am sure we will find out more on this.

In May, Stephen Bosworth, President Obama's envoy, said the U.S. would talk to the North Koreans bilaterally. It's hard to believe the White House would pass up this opportunity.


Arlington, Va.: While the detention without trial was deplorable, and it's obviously a win to have them freed, it's pretty clear that these people were in fact spying, isn't it?

Gordon Chang: Ling and Lee were reporters from all we could tell. If the North Koreans thought they were really spies, they would not have been returned so easily.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Why didn't Al Gore go? He is the journalists' employer, and he's a former-high-ranking U.S. official (and a Nobel Prize winner to boot). I read that the North Koreans didn't want him, but Clinton. Why do you think the U.S. gave in? Al Gore should have been good enough.

Gordon Chang: To Washington, it was a matter of indifference whether it was Gore or Clinton. To the North Koreans, there was a big difference. If this was a concession, it was an awfully easy one to make.

By the way, Kim Jong Il remembered that Clinton did not come to Pyongyang at the end of his second term when there was talk of this happening. Kim wanted that photo op.


Albany, N.Y.: Do you know of any other Americans or South Koreans who are being detained by North Korea? I thought there was a pastor (U.S. or ROK) who was being held by North Korea.

Also, do you think that Clinton should have brought up the fact that there are thousands of North Koreans who are being held in secretive concentration camps in North Korea? That's a human rights issue.

Gordon Chang: There are at least a thousands South Korean held in the North. Some of them are Korean War POWS and others kidnapped since then. I don't know of any Americans held there against their will at this moment.

I don't blame Bill Clinton for not raising the issue. His job was to bring back Ling and Lee. Talking about the thousand Koreans and the hundred Japanese abductees is Hillary's job--and Obama's.


Bala Cynwyd, Pa.: Do you agree with Reuters' article claiming that the rescue of the two journalists will complicate negotiations over nukes?

Gordon Chang: No, unless Obama has made unwise concessions in order to free the journalists. We should find out soon if this is the case. By the way, the White House denies any such concessions.


Washington, D.C.: Do you agree with John Bolton's assessment, as laid out in his editorial in today's Wash. Post, that Clinton's negotiations with North Korea strengthened the legitimacy of the regime and ultimately undermined U.S. security in the long term?

Gordon Chang: The negotiations did help legitimize the regime, but at this point it was more important to get Ling and Lee back. What undermines U.S. security in the long-term is ineffective and feckless American policy. The short-term compromises were well worth it.

_______________________ Clinton's Unwise Trip to North Korea (Post, Aug. 5)


Altanta, Ga.: What do you think of the photos of Kim and Clinton? At first, I thought Clinton's dour and serious look was appropriate making it seem that this was a serious and no-nonsense visit. But now looking at it, with Kim smiling like he won, Clinton looked like he lost.

Gordon Chang: Well,, Kim wanted those photos and so won in a real sense. But I have to say that getting back Ling and Lee was worth it. I have to say that sometimes you have to make concessions to get back your citizens.


China reaction?: If the journalists were indeed snatched from Chinese soil, why wouldn't China raise an objection right away? Do you think they would have objected if the snatched were Chinese citizens? Otherwise, it has the appearance that NK can just come into Chinese territory if they please. At least, that appears to be the public perception.

Gordon Chang: North Korean border guards regularly go into China to snatch people. Beijing is not that concerned about the sanctity of its territory when it comes to the North Korean guards.


Bethany Beach, Del.: Do you think the North Korean military threat is for real or just a paper tiger? They can barely feed their own people. There are reports of thousands of missiles and mortars aimed at South Korea, but is it reliable. I would imagine their military equipment to be old and useless, and their troops to be ill-trained.

And do you think a pre-emptive strike on North Korea can be done?

Gordon Chang: The conventional forces are not as strong as they appear. They have been eroded by the lack of resources over the last decade. That's why Kim is concentrating on his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

I'm not in favor of a pre-emptive strike. There are so many diplomatic options we have.


San Diego, Calif.: Sir, I know you're not a medical doctor, but what is your assessment of Kim's physical condition based on the photos and news videos? He didn't look like he was on his death-bed. He looked lucid and engaged to me. Thank you.

Gordon Chang: These photos show a Kim who has recovered from last month. Even though there has been a temporary improvement in his appearance, I suspect he is still in extremely poor health.


Seoul, S. Korea: Does the U.S. of America have any right to comment or criticize the apprehension, detention and lack of due process inflicted on these reporters when the detainees at GITMO are suffering the same fate? Very hypocritical.

Gordon Chang: These are two different situations. I don't think Ling and Lee were planning attacks on North Korean targets.


Washington, D.C.: I think you're being quite soft on these two people. They didn't consider the security concerns of their trip. They may have crossed a dangerous international border, intentionally or unintentionally. Then their family creates a stink and expects our government to rescue them from their carelessness. And, of course, we do -- rewarding stupidity and giving our opponents a major propaganda victory. So, well done Laura and Euna.

Gordon Chang: Okay, but the U.S. government needs to protect all Americans, even the ones who do ill-advised things.


Riverdale, Calif.: Is it true that Chinese citizens have no restrictions when traveling to North Korea unlike citizens from Western countries who are always accompanied by North Korean escorts? If that is true, would the PRC have the best information regarding the stability of and conditions in North Korea?

Gordon Chang: No, Chinese citizens do not have unrestricted access to North Korea. Nonetheless, the Chinese have the best intel on North Korea due to tourism, trade, and military links.


Gordon Chang: Thanks for all your questions, which touched all the important points. I am sure we will learn more, but Goodbye for now.


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