North Korea couldn't care less

North Korea's latest bargaining chips, two US journalists, are a human dimension to an out of control nuclear situation which has left the world's diplomats stumped—again. It is now a waiting game to see what they are worth

It is difficult to imagine a preference for the Iranian judicial system over others, but being subjected to ‘justice’ à la North Korea makes Iran’s leaders, their trumped up charges and the hierarchy’s attitude to the ‘West’ seem on balance, frighteningly sane. That is if you are foreign-based journalists who just happen to be easy pickings for spy charges.

In the case of Iran’s May release of native, but US-domiciled Roxana Saberi, the spy charges were obviously ridiculous, but President Ahmadinejad, who is currently fighting for his political life, looked good overseeing her release. The idea was obviously that a few warm fuzzies from the outside world would help placate the locals who think he’s gone too far in antagonising the West. He is under severe pressure from a reform candidate in this week’s elections.

Flick across the globe to that other Axis of Evil, North Korea, and the wacko regime there is a lot more difficult to read. The sentencing of two US journalists to 12 years hard labour raises immediate concerns about what the actual motive for their arrest and outrageous sentence actually is.

They are now human pawns in the dangerous game that North Korea’s ‘Dear Leader’ has been playing. What makes it ever so more dangerous is the complete and utter contempt Kim Jong Il has for human rights, unless they are the rights of his own elite. While he’s spent years starving his own people so he can indulge his fantasies of importance by building bombs, any pictures of his playboy sons will show they are nothing but the overweight heirs to despotism.

It seems to me no coincidence that Euna Lee and Laura Ling were arrested and sentenced so harshly for allegedly straying across the border just as Kim had veered right off the path of any previous commitment he’d made on nuclear disarmament and so was facing more pressure from Washington.

De-coupling the journos from the nuclear battle will be impossible, and given the current impasse between North Korea and the world, that is a troubling situation. The UN has decided to punish Kim for his nuclear provocations by denying fuel to any “suspicious” North Korean ships, and of course there are all the usuals such as demanding no further nuclear tests or ballistic missile launches.

I guess the UN has to do or say something, but isn’t it bleeding obvious that nothing is working. If anything, the situation is now worse that it has been for decades.

Punishing North Korea and labeling it a pariah state and elevating it to its infamous Axis position did nothing. All the while North Korea just kept on building its nuke reactors and weapons. Embracing it within the caring arms of the six-party talks did nothing but emasculate the UN and the other countries involved. They would be nice. Kim would appear acquiescent, then have a hissy fit and demand more time, more aid, more love. Take me off the pariah list, he pleaded, and his wish was granted. It would be frightening if there really was a diplomat who believed Kim was going to play non-nuke ball. And all the while Iran has been watching.


Now Kim has managed to split the US atom once more. He has two journalists who nobody in the US believes were actually trespassing into the dreaded hermit kingdom. The boss of those journalists is Al Gore—Mr Climate and Mr Human Rights all rolled into one and he says he’s ready to go and plead for their release. Hilary Clinton has stomped her well shod foot and sent a letter! And still the gulag’s latest occupants remain out of bounds and out of contact.

Who remains smiling? Kim and his chubby offspring—No.3, in particular as it seems he’s daddy’s favourite for the big job, said by the few who know anything about this scary place as being the pride and joy because he most looks like his father. In other circumstances I would say poor bastard, but I suppose many dynasties throughout world history have chosen successors on just as valid criteria.

There has been much diplomatic sweat shed over what has prompted the dramatic about turn from Kim in terms of the nuclear weapons programme. Without simplifying it too much, it would appear that given there is little else in the country worth shouting about—or handing on to one’s beloved—the weapons fit the bill. They may be Kim’s only legacy.

The world then has to worry about how unpredictable No.3 son will be. If he’s got his father’s dashing good looks he may also have inherited his meek, mild, rational temper—not. Whatever the UN or the US or the rest of us think about the hermetically sealed North Korea, the Darwinian process will have continued on unabated and the country’s next leader will unfortunately prove the genes have it.

It would seem not impossible to imagine the journalists Lee and Ling will be used to extract something from the suitably horrified American community. The next shot, so to speak, will have to be from Kim, as there’s little else the outside world can do with a rogue Stalinst state which won’t let anyone in—or out.

As Mikhail Gorbachev said of politics, its art lies in not turning a problem into a threat and a threat into an armed conflict. We get the point and you are right Mr Gorbachev, but this wall is not so easy to tear down, and it is awfully tempting to get Dick Cheney on the case.