Monday, June 8, 2009

Euna, Laura, and Lori

"That tiger didn't go crazy. That tiger went tiger." -- Comedian Chris Rock, speaking about the Siegfried & Roy tiger attack incident in Las Vegas in 2003.

I heard the unsurprising but still disheartening news about Euna Lee and Laura Ling's sentencing this week by the so-called Democratic People's Republic of North Korea. In this case, two American citizens are facing the prospect of twelve years' hard labor -- or worse -- in one of the world's worst penal systems, and the collective psyche of this nation doesn't seem too bothered by it.

I was kind of stumped by this (after all, shouldn't we care more about the rights of two American citizens abroad than we do about the treatment of Khalid Shaikh Mohammad?), so I went to check out the media coverage and the comments left there by people who, well, care enough to leave comments.

Some expressed a lot of outrage and frustration, but there were many who voiced the sort of "Well, they got what was coming" attitude that might help explain why there seems to be more outrage in the streets of Seoul over this than there does in the streets of Peoria.

Judging by those comments, you would almost think that Euna Lee and Laura Ling -- both credentialed journalists working for Current TV -- were being held in the same category as Lori Berenson, the MIT dropout who, with her middle-class American values and gringa-accented, nails-on-a-chalkboard Spanish, went to Peru and operated a safehouse for the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, for which she's now serving a twenty-year sentence under less-than-brutal conditions. (Judging from the fact that she became pregnant in 2008, well, I'll let you write the 'hard labor' joke as you see fit).

In Lori Berenson's case, I would say the 'tiger went tiger.' I can almost see her parents scolding her next year when she gets released, with a finger wagging in her direction...

"Now, Lori, what did we tell you about starting revolutions in Latin America? You're going to bed with no supper so you can think about all those people in Lima whose lives you and those friends of yours ruined."

In the case of Euna Lee and Laura Ling, however, there's no evidence they ever jabbed a finger in the tiger's eye, let alone entered his cage. And, as their families pleaded so earnestly on CNN, even if they did, it was likely unintentional, and certainly without malicious intent.

Thankfully, the State Department and the Obama Administration are spinning up into crisis mode here, so at least they're demonstrating the proper level of concern over two American citizens who may have been badly wronged here, at the cost of their own lives and the well-being of their families who, if they're taking North Korea's track record of taking care of the MANY Japanese and South Korean citizens they've mercilessly kidnapped over the years into account, have every reason to worry.

Some things are just bad, though the commentariat, the blogetariat, and the MSM might not have you think it. The code of the moral relativist says that the 'badness' of any action is only in the eye of the beholder.

A Christian extremist/terrorist killing a doctor in a Kansas church is just as bad as a Muslim extremist/terrorist killing an Army private in Arkansas, though if we're just going by media and Internet references one was apparently eight times as bad as the other.

A foreign government drumming up possibly baseless charges against two American journalists, and then sentencing them to hard labor with the possible trump card of 'bargaining chip' in their sleeve is a bad thing. North Korea is not 'just another country' with a simply 'misunderstood' point of view -- any moral relativist who really believes that needs to conduct some field research, or even just library research, before seriously saying that with a straight face.

Euna Lee and Laura Ling may not look like your next-door neighbors, but they could have been.

They did not 'have this coming' and neither did their families.


kad barma said...

As Americans we are the people who were so peeved as to have been (apparently) denied the full rights of Englishmen as granted in the Magna Carta ("no taxation without representation", etc.), that we staged a revolution and have (apparently) been feeling entitled ever since. We constantly choose to ignore that our sovereignty stops with our borders, (invade Iraq, demand others treat our citizens according to OUR laws and not theirs, etc.), yet we immediately take shelter behind the artifice when it suits us, too. (Guantanamo not being on our soil prompts many of our "statesmen" to argue that the regular rules shouldn't apply, and our recent extradition practices abroad have raised a few eyebrows, too). So which is it going to be?

Travelers in foreign countries are always taking serious risks, though we Americans often forget that this is absolutely true. We are appalled at the verite of "Midnight Express", and we even get all indignant and self-righteous when our miscreant vandal teenagers abroad are sentenced to a half dozen strokes with a cane as is the common (and apparently effective) practice in the extremely clean and well-run city of Singapore. I would ask, who, really, do we think we are?

My nieces were catcalled incessantly when they visited their parents living ex-pat in Morocco until they learned to wear extremely modest clothing and walk with male escorts. We might think this is a situation that should not be so, but we would be wrong to think that we can impose that sentiment on Moroccans. If we want American women to be able to walk solo in the street wearing sleeveless clothing without unpleasant consequence, then the good news is that they can! Right here in America. (Usually).

If we don't like our citizens being detained, convicted and sentenced arbitrarily by totalitarian despots, as totalitarian despots are wont to do, then we should amplify the State Department warnings to travelers to those sorts of countries, and learn to be frustrated while reading our morning papers over our corn flakes. But I, for one, am not surprised these two women have wound up on the wrong end of a hard labor sentence, given the circumstances. Sure, it's an ugly reality, but it's the North Korean sovereign ugly reality, and we're going to have to learn to deal with it in more constructive ways.

The New Englander said...


Good point on respecting other nations and their laws -- I saw Midnight Express and definitely felt bad for the guy (though I mostly remember just being bored), but at the end of the day couldn't muster that much sympathy. Ditto for the British lady currently facing a life sentence in Laos for heroin smuggling. And, of course, for Lori Berenson, who went WAY beyond a simple violation of the law.

I would agree with you all the way here if it were somehow proven that Lee and Ling did indeed violate NK territorial sovereignty, despite the warnings, thinking their government would just bail them out (but for an apples-to-apples about territorial sovereignty, ours gets violated all the time, and tends to eventually wind up in an all-expenses one-way trip back).

However, I'm not inclined to trust North Korea on this type of matter. Consider Megumi Yakota, the 13-year-old girl kidnapped on her way home from school in 1977 by North Korean agents working in Japan. Or the dozen or so others that North Korea has admitted to snatching away from Japan (despite years of official denials on the matter), who were clearly doing nothing to provoke the acts..let alone the many other suspected cases out of South Korea.

If laws are being violated abroad, we Americans shoudn't hide behind some kind of diplomatic protection (and the 5 U.S. contractors accused of murdering an American in the Green Zone may be in for a VERY rude awakening on this one, with very little sympathy from their gov't or the public here)..but as for Lee and Ling, absent any other evidence, I just don't put much stock in North Korea's word..


Jon and Kate said...

KB/GP --

Both good points. It seems almost certain that they did enter North Korea -- crossing the frozen Tumen river -- which is illegal, and which they were well aware of. So that's why you get a little "they knew what they were doing" blowback.

That said, WHAT THE FUCK??? Isn't this the same country that was so obsessed with the Iran hostage affair that it helped bring down a president? Wept openly when Terry Anderson was finally released? Granted, these journalists "brought it upon themselves" more than others, but do they really deserve ten year sentences (when the penalty for illegal entry is three)? Do they really deserve sentences at all? The lack of outrage and concern is shameful.

kad barma said...

gp, i think examples of 'extraordinary extradition' need to be made carefully, observing our recently-past practices of kidnapping folks from places where our own better rules conveniently didn't apply.

j&k, my outrage is tempered by realizing what i would otherwise need to give up in global diplomacy to exercise it. you've cited some of the very pertinent facts, and these are not insignificant. the legal basis for the extent of the sentence is, indeed, bogus, and i expect our state department will contend strenuously that something needs to be realigned there. but, lets face it, there's a line not to be crossed, and these women crossed it.

The New Englander said...


Thanks much for adding addition to the points stated, the back-and-forth from JK and KB about outrage and the response made me think about the future incentive structure that our government has to create by the way it acts, or doesn't.

For instance, by letting Lori Berenson stay in Peruvian detention all these years, all the Presidents and SecStates that have come and gone are basically saying to the other 300 million of us, "If you want to go starting revolutions in other countries, you're on your own with that. Uncle Sam isn't coming to bail you out."

Similar thing here -- assuming the transgression happened, we don't want to say we'll go to any and all lengths, no matter what, because that basically writes a blank check to all future intrepid journalist or tourist would-be hostile border crossers that "it doesn't matter what you do, we'll come clean up the mess."

To me, the question of what actually happened is still pretty central in all this and I'll stay open-minded to whatever comes out..still, I have a hard time trusting a state with an acknowledged history of kidnapping -- and lying about it..


C R Krieger said...

How can I resist?  The first problem is that the center point here is the DPRK, which we have trained to be obnoxious on the international scene.  They create a crisis and we respond and often end up giving them something.  I would love to hear the DoS briefer or the President's Press Secretary say something like:  "North Korea?  Did something happen there?  We fully support Japan and the Republic of Korea.  Next!" 

We reward the Dear Leader when we respond.  In the future, if they launch a missile, we don't respond, unless it lands on our territory.  Then we respond in a strong, military, way.  Quietly mining Wonson Harbor comes to mind.

As for Euna and Laura, there is nothing we can do about it without either paying a ransom or invading.  I rule out both.  A ransom would just encourage the DPRK.  A war on that peninsula would be ugly and too many people would die on either side.

We are between a rock and a hard place and just have to wait it out.

And, I agree with you (Greg) about Lori.

As for the memory of 1215 AD and the begining of the "Rights of Englishmen" on the field at Runnymeade, I say "Right On."

On the other hand, I agree that we should not be acting like there is one set of rules for us and another for the rest of the world.  I am all for a Constitutional Amendment that says that our rights apply wherever our power holds sway.

Regards  —  Cliff