Take a look at this recent news story in The New York Times on the situation now that North Korean courts have sentenced U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to 12 years in labor camps.
One theory is the conviction was the first step in diplomatic negotiations to work toward a face-saving means to release the pair. Another is that the two Americans wandered into North Korea at the worst moment, when antagonism was heating up with the United States — and even among factions within North Korea.
Clearly, the timing was awful, and so apparently was the journalists’ sense of geography. They are now chips in a diplomatic game that will revolve around nuclear testing, humanitarian relief, international censure and a few other negotiating points. The two worked for Al Gore’s Current TV, a web-TV outfit. Gore has suggested that he might be willing to serve as an emissary to seek the women’s release on humanitarian grounds.
In this case, understand that a humanitarian release probably also will be accompanied by about $20 million in U.S. aid that just may not be mentioned in the same breath. Any trade-offs will be de-linked for the efficacy of both sides. But in the gamesmanship with North Korea, there is always going to be a trade-off.
These journalists apparently were aiming to do noble work chronicling the plight of North Koreans who are often victimized as they try to slide quietly into China. But their presence on the wrong side of the border — if they really were wrong — has proven costly not only for them but probably for our diplomatic positioning.
But these things happen in a free society. Or a freeer-than-North-Korean society, by a good amount.
This story is transpiring as news reports in Asia are exploring indirect information that 67-year-old President Kim Jong-il has designated a son, 25-year-old Kim Jong-un, to replace him eventually at the top of the government. Kim is trying to keep the power in the family. It was handed down to him from his father, the national patron and penalizer Kim Il-sung. The continuation of this family legacy, of course, defeats any sense that there is any sort of merit-based political hierarchy in North Korea. It would place the system squarely in the box of dictatorship.
Keeping all of the higher-level politicos and army generals happy will not be easy as the Kim kid takes over power. Father Kim is going to have to buy off a whole generation (or two) of top dogs, promising favors, new sinecures and probably free travel to countries where they can act particularly un-North Korean for a while. In other words, they can have some leisure-time fun, an experience not available to most other citizens.
Kim has one other option. He can lock up and forget to feed anyone who disagrees, as long as the locker-uppers abide by the plan. These sorts of family-first-by-force patronage systems have been going on for thousands of years, especially in Asia but also in well-known historical places like Rome during the empire. We just don’t see many attempts in the 21st century.
The Kims are not your typical modern family.
Watch for more on this. (With the other eye on similar power-shifts in Cuba.) Media reports have been wrong before, especially on issues as dicey and guarded as North Korean politics. It’s not like President Kim holds press conferences. Dictators don’t need the trouble of accountability. The two U.S. journalists now in NK prisons remind us of that.