"Guilty as charged!" So said the highest court in the land in the case of Current TV journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling vs. North Korea. The two journalists, who allegedly (and very foolishly or recklessly) wandered across the China-North Korea border on March 17 and were promptly captured by North Korean border guards, were tried in the Central Court in Pyongyang and each sentenced to 12 years of "reform through labor." The trial, according to the North's Korean Central News Agency, "confirmed the grave crime they committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing." The important point to note here is that they were not just guilty of "illegal border crossing" (which could more easily be resolved), but of some unspecified "grave crime" as well.
The two young ladies (along with a cameraman and a local guide who both avoided apprehension) went in search of a story; reports vary as to whether they were investigating the flow of North Korean refugees into and through China or the trafficking of North Korean women or both. Instead they have become the story.
A great deal of ink has been spilled speculating about why the women were arrested and what will be their ultimate fate. The first part is easy. They were arrested because they illegally entered North Korean territory. The timing - in the midst of a missile and nuclear crisis - was pure coincidence. Had there been a more cooperative atmosphere between Pyongyang and the West, they would still have been arrested, tried, and convicted, at least on the illegal entry charge and probably for the more grave crime of espionage as well. From a North Korean perspective, reporters are spies; it matters little if they work for a cable TV station or the CIA. In either case they are gathering sensitive information that the North wants to withhold or protect. Guilty as charged. Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres) has argued that "Pyongyang authorities have no reason to hold them or to accuse them of illegal activities," but to North Korea (and most nations), borders still matter; you cross them at your own risk.
What happens next is the big question and here the context matters. Were relations between Pyongyang and Washington more cordial, a high-level apology, perhaps accompanied by a promise of increased humanitarian assistance, would probably have resulted in their relatively quick release on "humanitarian grounds," as the U.S. State Department is currently asking Pyongyang to do. But these are not happy times and not because Washington is looking for a fight. North Korea, for its own reasons, has chosen a confrontational path. While their capture has presented Pyongyang with a convenient "bargaining chip," it is not clear what they want to bargain for.
Some have speculated that the North will try to trade their release for direct dialogue with Washington but, if that was the objective, this was already being offered prior to the various Pyongyang-generated crises. Others have speculated that Pyongyang will try to swap their release for a relaxation of UN Security Council sanctions but this is unrealistic. For its part, Washington has been careful about keeping the nuclear crisis and detainee cases separate. "Clearly we don't want this pulled into the political issues we have with North Korea, or the concerns that are being expressed in the United Nations Security Council," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently explained, adding "This is separate. It is a humanitarian issue, and the girls should be let go."
A few things are clear. First, there is no appeal; verdicts by the Central Court are final. Second, the ladies can expect some period of imprisonment. Ironically, the louder the protests, the longer the likely incarceration - Pyongyang loves nothing better than international attention; it would much rather be hated than ignored. Third, they have not yet been and are not likely to be treated like normal prisoners; they probably will not be put in one of the North's notorious labor camps, their sentence of "reform through labor" notwithstanding. This is not because Pyongyang wants to spare them from human suffering but because they do not want to give them access to these camps and their inmates. At some point they will come home and that's one story the North is not prepared to provide.
Finally, Pyongyang alone will determine when that point will be, when it feels it has milked the incident for all its worth and decides on what reward it can realistically receive for their release. At that point, they will likely revert to form and welcome a high-level envoy to come apologize in person and will levee some fine or extract some commitment of humanitarian assistance in appreciation for the North's kind gesture.
Vice President Gore seems the most appropriate and likely interlocutor since he co-founded the Current TV network. But such a high-level visitor would mandate a meeting with the North's so-called Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, who is apparently still recovering from a stroke and may not be up to the task. In fact, the rejection of a Gore visit might be a clear signal that Kim really is on his last leg as many speculate.
In the meantime, the challenge for the U.S. will be to continue to maintain a low-key, low publicity approach toward this humanitarian issue and keep it separated, to the maximum extent possible, from the on-going nuclear crisis and sanctions regime that is sure to follow.