By Evan Wagstaff
Special to Calbuzz
Kim Jong-Il got “100 percent” of what he wanted from the imprisonment and release of California journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who were held merely as “bargaining chips,” according to the author of a new book on North Korean labor camp conditions.
But the United States also benefited by sending former President Bill Clinton to bring home Lee and Ling, said Associate Professor Suk-Young Kim, of U.C. Santa Barbara, author of Long Road Home: Testimony of a North Korean Camp Survivor. The U.S. gain was an improvement in relations, she said. “There’s something to be gained for North Korea and the U.S.”
Professor Kim said it is unlikely the North Korean government ever meant to imprison the two, who were released last week to Clinton, followed by a joyous homecoming at Burbank airport.
“I think North Korea’s plan was not to keep them, but use them as part of a bargain to ease the tense relationship between North Korea and the US,” she said. “North Korea tried to use them as bargaining chips, and I think they got 100% out of that bargain. They wanted to say, ‘We’re not that crazy, we’re reasonable people; if you listen to our voice we’re willing to cooperate with you.’”
Dr. Kim’s book, released in June, is based on her interviews and conversations with Kim Yong, the first known survivor of a North Korean labor camp, which she describes as a “death camp.” The book recounts Kim Yong’s experience as a dedicated lieutenant colonel in the North Korean military until he was accused of treason and sentenced to Camps 14 and 18, where he spent six years.
Lee and Ling were both sentenced on June 4 to 12 years’ hard labor at such a camp for purported “hostile acts,” after being captured in March for allegedly entering North Korean territory while researching a story on political refugees for the cable network Current TV. They were released shortly after Clinton’s arrival in North Korea.
Professor Kim said that beyond its intention to reach a global audience with the dramatic release of the journalists, the government also used Clinton’s visit for internal political purposes, as a self-glorifying rallying call, trumpeted by the North Korean media, to bolster its image as an international power player.
“When there is a foreign dignitary that visits, North Koreans conduct political education sessions,” she said. “Clinton would have shown the political clout of Kim Jong-Il to the North Korean people, who would’ve likely been told that even a great leader of imperial America like Clinton has come to pay respect to the dear general.”
She also said that the American media greatly oversimplifies issues relating to North Korea. For example, she said, Kim Yong has expressed a desire to return to his home country, even though he was severely punished by the government he spent his life serving. Professor Kim said that while the former prisoner would like to see the North Korean government collapse, he still feels an an important connection to the North Korean people.
“If you talk to people who lived in North Korea, it opens up your view beyond what you hear on Fox News or CNN,” she said. “It’s a human society just as complex and twisted as the US or South Korea or elsewhere. The American media for the most part only shows one story consistently, and it’s a story of failure. That’s the way America is portrayed in North Korea and I don’t think Americans would like that.”
Relations between the U.S. and North Korea have long been strained. In April, North Korea attempted to launch a three-stage long range rocket; this was followed by a successful nuclear test in May. Both actions came in defiance of international warnings and past agreements. Also, North Korea has insisted that it would reprocess nuclear fuel rods for the purpose of creating a nuclear arsenal.
Dr. Kim said that the recognition on the international stage the North Korea gained from the Lee-Ling saga could prove very important in repairing the broken relations with the U.S.
“This was a way to ease up that tension, to sit down with Clinton face to face and jump start those relations that have deteriorated,” Kim said.
“Although I understand it is a harsh and terrible regime, if we want to improve our relations with North Korea, we should talk to them and deal with them with patience. It doesn’t mean I endorse what they do, but there is no other way than to engage with them and Clinton’s visit is a good example. It yielded positive results.”
Calbuzz intern Evan Wagstaff is Opinion Editor of The Daily Nexus at UCSB.