Con­victed U.S. jour­nal­ists in N. Korea likely to be pawns

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - BY AN­DREW SAL­MON

SEOUL | North Korea’s sen­tenc­ing of two Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists to 12 years of “re­form” through hard la­bor draws at­ten­tion to one of the world’s most un­for­giv­ing pe­nal sys­tems, even though an­a­lysts say it is un­likely the two will serve time in a gu­lag.

In­stead Euna Lee and Laura Ling were ex­pected to be­come ne­go­ti­at­ing pawns as the North tests the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion by steadily es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions with the United States.

Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling, who were cap­tured in March while re­port­ing a story on the North Korean-Chi­nese bor­der about traf­fick­ing of North Korean women, were sen­tenced June 8 af­ter a five-day trial.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion strug­gled to keep its ef­forts to free the re­por ters sep­a­rate from ef­forts to re­solve a nu­clear and mis­sile dis­pute with the North.

The White House and the State Depart­ment said they are us­ing “all pos­si­ble chan­nels” to per­suade the North Kore­ans to release the women “on hu­man­i­tar­ian grounds.” They in­sisted the mat­ter had noth­ing to do with a res­o­lu­tion be­ing ne­go­ti­ated at the United Na­tions that would im­pose sanc­tions on the North for con­duct­ing a nu­clear test late last month.

“We think [the re­porters] should be ex­am­ined on a hu­man­i­tar­ian back­ground. That’s to­tally sep­a­rate from what we are try­ing to do up in New York,” State Depart­ment spokesman Ian Kelly told re­porters.

The sen­tence comes amid mul­ti­ple at­tempts by North Korea to raise ten­sions in its deal­ings with Wash­ing­ton. In ad­di­tion to last month’s nu­clear test, it is re­port­edly pre­par­ing to con­duct its sec­ond test of a long-range rocket this year.

An­drei Lankov, a Nor th Korea ex­pert at Seoul´s Kook­min Uni­ver­sity, said au­thor­i­ties have lit­tle in­cen­tive to place the re­porters in the na­tion’s gu­lag sys­tem.

“They will never be sent to a real prison camp, as they would for a sub­ur­ban Amer­i­can.”

A brief dis­patch by North Korea’s of­fi­cial news agency on June 8 said the re­porters have been con­victed of “hos­til­ity to­ward the Korean peo­ple” and were sen­tenced to “re­for m through la­bor.”

Choi Jong-kun, an in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions spe­cial­ist at Yon­sei Uni­ver­sity, said it was a bad time for Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee to be in North Korea.

“I used to think the North Kore­ans would use this sit­u­a­tion and open up ne­go­ti­a­tions with the U.S., but ever since it hap­pened, no pos­i­tive sig­nals have come out,” Mr. Choi said.

Had the two been North Korean cit­i­zens in­stead of Amer­i­cans, their sit­u­a­tion would have been far more bleak.

Con­di­tions for na­tives who fall un­der North Korean jus­tice are harsh, es­pe­cially if their crimes in­volve cr iti­cism of leader Kim Jong-il.

Hu­man rights groups, bas­ing their es­ti­mates on de­fec­tor tes­ti­monies, be­lieve that about 200,000 pris­on­ers are in North Korea´s gu­lag sys­tem. Many are fam­ily mem­bers im­pris­oned for the crimes of their rel­a­tives, es­pe­cially when the crimes are po­lit­i­cal.

Shin Dong-hyuk, who es­caped from the gu­lag in 2005, told for­eign re­porters in Seoul of life in­side the se­cre­tive “To­tal Con­trol Camp 14.”

There, he said, guards rou­tinely mu­ti­lated pris­on­ers — in­clud­ing chil­dren — with hooks and knives for mis­takes or rule in­frac­tions.

Amer­i­cans held by Py­ongyang in re­cent years have fared bet­ter.

In 1994, a U.S. Army he­li­copter pi­lot was cap­tured af­ter he ac­ci­den­tally over­flew the bor­der. In 1996, a drunken Amer­i­can civil­ian was cap­tured while swim­ming in the Yalu River on the North Korean/Chi­nese bor­der. Both were freed, without suf­fer­ing harsh treat­ment, af­ter diplo­matic in­ter ven­tions by New Mex­ico Gov. Bill Richardson, who was a con­gress­man at the time.

Ni­cholas Kralev con­trib­uted to this re­port in Wash­ing­ton


South Kore­ans at the Seoul Rail­way Sta­tion on June 8 watch a tele­vi­sion broad­cast of news about two Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists de­tained in Nor th Korea. The Nor th’s top cour t con­victed the jour­nal­ists and sen­tenced them to 12 years of hard la­bor.

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