TOPICS > Politics

Sentencing of Journalists Adds to U.S.-N. Korea Tensions

June 8, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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A North Korean court convicted two U.S. reporters of entering the country illegally Monday and sentenced them to 12 years in a labor camp. A professor and the former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea discuss the situation.
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JIM LEHRER: North Korea’s highest court convicted two U.S. television journalists today of entering the country illegally. The announcement added to rising tensions with the communist regime.

Jeffrey Brown has our lead story report.

JEFFREY BROWN: The two Americans — Laura Ling and Euna Lee — were sentenced to 12 years hard labor in the notoriously brutal North Korean prison system.

The pair work for Current TV, a San Francisco-based venture co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

They were detained near the North Korea-China border in March. It’s unclear if they strayed across or were grabbed by North Korean guards.

Today’s verdict was harsher than expected, and it followed a secretive court proceeding that lasted five days. It was also the latest in a series of provocations. Over the last two months, the North Koreans have conducted a long-range missile launch and an underground nuclear test.

In Washington today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the journalists’ detention should not be linked to the standoff over the North’s nuclear program.

HILLARY CLINTON, Secretary of State: We think the imprisonment, trial and sentencing of Laura and Euna should be viewed as a humanitarian matter. We hope that the North Koreans will grant clemency and deport them. There are other concerns that we and the international community have with North Korea, but those are separate and apart from what’s happening to the two journalists.

JEFFREY BROWN: On Sunday, Secretary Clinton also said the Obama administration is considering tougher steps against North Korea over the recent tests, including possibly intercepting sea and air traffic.

And the North Koreans said today they may begin a new series of missile tests in the waters off the Korean peninsula.

Sentence sends a message

Donald Gregg
Former ambassador to S. Korea
I think the Obama administration is very wise to keep the two issues separate, the humanitarian issue of getting the girls out and the other military-political issues, which the North Koreans have been bombarding us with.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more, we turn to Donald Gregg, who served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea during the George H.W. Bush administration. He's now chairman of the board of the Korea Society in New York.

And Sung-Yoon Lee is an assistant professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Well, Donald Gregg, is there a message being sent by this sentence? And if so, what is it?

DONALD GREGG, former ambassador to South Korea: Well, it's a very tough sentence. I think the Obama administration is very wise to keep the two issues separate, the humanitarian issue of getting the girls out and the other military-political issues, which the North Koreans have been bombarding us with.

I think there's an opportunity by reacting to the sentencing of the two young women to get them out and perhaps to open up an aperture where these other issues can be more professionally and more successfully addressed.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, let me come back to that. But, first, Sung-Yoon Lee, what do you take as the message being sent by the North Koreans? It's always hard to tell with them, with their closed society and government, but what do you take from this?

SUNG-YOON LEE, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy: Well, as counterintuitive as this may sound, North Korea, even as the world's most oppressive totalitarian state in the world, actually does care about its image in the world, how it's perceived by other states.

For instance, when other states criticize North Korea's human rights violations, North Korea grows very sensitive and makes the case that there are no human rights problems in their country, perhaps the only country in the world to make that case.

And because, as Ambassador Gregg mentions, this is a humanitarian issue, fortunately, the two detainees, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, don't offer the North Korean state much intelligence value in terms of military intelligence, even in terms of propaganda value.

Yes, North Korea would use this case as a warning to other would-be journalists intent on telling the world about the plight of the North Korean people, but, beyond a certain amount of time, the value of these women continuing to be detained in North Korea does not serve North Korea's purpose. So I expect North Korea to bargain them away when the time comes.

Sending an envoy to North Korea

Sung-Yoon Lee
Tufts University
I support the families of Laura Ling and Euna Lee to go public with this issue. It's important to personify this issue, to tell the world about the plight of these two women.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ambassador Gregg, in that regard, there have, of course, already been suggestions about sending someone, most prominently named would be former Vice President Al Gore, perhaps New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, as an envoy. Based on past experience -- and you've watched this for many years -- when is the best time to do something like that? And what is the right approach to take?

DONALD GREGG: I think that the next week or 10 days is very crucial. The journalists have been sentenced, but they have not yet been carried away. The leadership in North Korea now has an opportunity to demonstrate its statesmanship by perhaps overturning their court's verdict.

And I think North Korea is very hierarchically inclined. I think they would react positively to a figure of real stature being sent to them.

And my choice for that would be former Vice President Al Gore for three reasons. One, he is highly prominent, known to the North Koreans, a world figure on global warming. Secondly, he is the founder of the firm for which the two journalists work. And, third, as vice president, he hosted what was the absolute high moment of North Korean-U.S. relations, which was a dinner on the top floor of the State Department for North Korean field marshal Jo Myong-Rok, when he visited the United States in the autumn of 2000.

That visit led to an invitation to President Clinton to visit North Korea. He sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and the president almost himself went to North Korea. This is remembered very well by the North Koreans. And the fact that Vice President Gore went to North Korea would, I think, carry a number of very convincing and powerful messages with him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Lee, let me come back, then, to something that Ambassador Gregg mentioned, in the meantime, while we wait to see if someone is sent. And we just heard Secretary of State Clinton say that the administration wants to keep these matters separate, the tensions over the nuclear and weapons testing separate from the case of the two journalists.

Do you think that's a good idea? And at this point, now that there has been a sentencing, is that still viable?

SUNG-YOON LEE: Well, indeed, this is a humanitarian issue, an issue separate from North Korea's strategic considerations. This is untied to the nuclear issue or the missile issue. So the issues should be kept separately from other strategic considerations.

North Korea will try to combine the two, of course, and try to thwart some of the gathering momentum within the Obama administration to seek economic sanctions on North Korea.

I support all that Ambassador Gregg said, but I would also add that I think it's important -- and I support the families of Laura Ling and Euna Lee to go public with this issue. It's important to personify this issue, to tell the world about the plight of these two women.

The women are a daughter, a sister, a wife. Euna Lee is a mother of a 4-year-old girl. I think the more sympathy, the more attention that the world, the United States government, the public, and responsible media stations keep on this issue, I think the likelihood of North Korea releasing them would increase.

Moving forward in weeks ahead

Donald Gregg
Former ambassador to S. Korea
I think we need to solve the humanitarian issue while it is distinct from the military and political issues, and that may give access to the start of dialogue on these other issues, which really can only be solved through some sort of dialogue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ambassador Gregg, what is the calculation, then, over the next days and weeks for the U.S., if, as you both seem to say, the North Koreans themselves, they don't separate the matter, even if we would like them to? What should be our stance going forward?

DONALD GREGG: Well, I think that the two issues are still separated in our country's perception of North Korea. If negotiations for the release of these journalists fail, the two issues will be blurred and the antagonism toward North Korea on the part of both the United States' people and government will increase drastically and will make it much more difficult, I think, eventually to reach dialogue on the other political military issues, which concern us very deeply.

So I think we need to solve the humanitarian issue while it is distinct from the military and political issues, and that may give access to the start of dialogue on these other issues, which really can only be solved through some sort of dialogue.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Professor Lee, as we said in our set-up, in the meantime, it looks as though the North Koreans are preparing for another round of tests. We did a look last week on the show about some of the reports about a succession plan in North Korea, tying in a lot of what's going on internally to these questions.

Do you see a line there for the North Koreans, in terms of where they might draw a line, in terms of these types of provocative acts?

SUNG-YOON LEE: Well, the latest provocative acts undertaken by North Korea -- the test of a long-range missile in early April and the latest nuclear test in late May -- follow a pattern of a long history of brinkmanship.

I fully expect North Korea to resort to such acts to put maximum pressure on the young U.S. administration to seek concessions, political, as well as economic rewards.

Even in the case of the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, I think it would be important not to automatically presume a change in the behavior of the North Korean state. North Korea has its long-term strategic plans of its own, irrespective of the goodwill coming out of the Obama administration.

I think a policy, a dual policy of diplomacy, buttressed by sanctions, economic sanctions, would advance the cause for denuclearization and peace on the Korean peninsula.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Sung-Yoon Lee and Donald Gregg, thank you both very much.

SUNG-YOON LEE: Thank you.