North Korea releases captured journalists.
It was the kind of story that ends badly, tragically. Or worse, it was the kind of story that never really ends and quickly gets forgotten.
California-based Current TV’s journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, captured in North Korea on March 17 of this year, were shortly thereafter tried and convicted of illegally crossing into the country from China. Globetrotting New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof suggested many reasons for their capture: They could have accidentally crossed the border (unlikely, he says), they could have crossed slightly into the country assuming there would be no consequences (as he says is often the case) or they could have even been sold to the North Koreans by an unscrupulous guide.
Ling, married to Iain Clayton and sister of Lisa Ling – a correspondent for Oprah, National Geographic and CNN – graduated from UCLA. Lee, married to actor Michael Saldate, was born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States in 1995, where she graduated from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
The two were sentenced by North Korean authorities to 12 years of servitude in a hard-labor camp, where they very well might have served out their time, used as propaganda for that government or as bargaining chips against the United States. Worse, perhaps, their individual stories might have been conveniently forgotten, and they would have been left at the mercy of their captors in the face of an international stalemate.
Through eight years of the Bush administration, few if any genuine negotiations or bilateral talks took place with North Korea, considered a rogue state and one of the vilified “Axis of Evil.” The Bush foreign policy doctrine considered open talks to be tantamount to legitimizing the Pyongyang regime, and for much of this decade the only recognizable view Americans saw of North Korea was the dancing puppet of supreme leader Kim Jong-Il in Team America: World Police.
In a keen example of how your election choices make a difference in the overall direction of the country, think back to the presidential debates, when John McCain criticized Barack Obama for his willingness to open dialogues with ostracized regimes. Now, after the return of Ling and Lee, President Obama was careful to say he was officially upholding much of the U.S. approach to dealing with North Korea, but his influence and worldview has doubtless been felt in this mission that sent former President Bill Clinton, flying on a friend’s jet on a “private humanitarian mission,” to North Korea to accept the pardoned release of the journalists. In a keener example of how relations with North Korea will continue to be shrouded in grand political theater, presidents Obama and Clinton, along with former Vice-President Al Gore – a co-founder of Current TV who worked to broker the release – and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, must now examine this recent interaction to see if, at long last, a new chapter can be opened on the Korean peninsula that lacks the ideological posturing of the past.
There is, indeed, something to be said for those tactics of the past, for a stony unwillingness to negotiate or compromise. History, always written by the victors, has, more than once, shown favor to the stubborn.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously wouldn’t give an inch during the Battle of Britain, and his resolve inspired his nation to repulse a Nazi menace more evil than anything the world had yet seen. Abraham Lincoln plunged a young America into a devastating civil war rather than see the union permanently dissolve, and in doing so took the first great step in eradicating the stain of slavery.
But times change, and so too must attitudes and approaches. U.S. and North Korean leaders should take a lesson from Ling and Lee – not just gloat in their respective debriefings of the political points earned from President Clinton and Kim Jong-Il’s tête-à-tête and the images of Ling and Lee hugging their families after arriving on a plane back in Burbank – a lasting lesson of what these women and their work represent to our present and future. As digital journalism and online communication stretch the capacity to tell global stories, binding us all closer together, so too have brave, conscientious and technologically-savvy reporters risked life and limb to report the underreported and shine the metaphorical light on the darkest recesses of our world. Ling and Lee, reporters like them, the subjects of their stories and everyone who is keen to offer their perspective on the human condition and in turn consider a view diametrically opposite, offer proof that the greatest triumphs of our next century will come through collaboration, not confrontation.
Freedom of the Press
North Korea releases captured journalists.