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Jailed U.S. Reporters: Business As Usual for North Korea

5 minute read
Bill Powell

The nightmare that began on March 17 for the two American journalists kidnapped by the North Koreans along the Chinese border got worse on Monday: Euna Lee, 36 and the mother of a 4-year-old, and Laura Ling, 32, were each sentenced to 12 years in prison by North Korea’s highest court. Their crime: illegal entry into the country and “hostile acts.” The sentence — “reform through labor” — raises the prospect that the two could be sent into North Korea’s notorious system for political prisoners — the so-called kwan li so, which are infamous for their mistreatment of prisoners.

“Malnourishment and beatings are common,” says Kang Chol Hwan, author of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, his account of the 10 years he spent as a prisoner in the North (Hwan’s grandfather and other family members were also arrested by the security police in North Korea for “crimes” never delineated). The American journalists, employed by Current TV, a San Francisco–based TV network founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, were filming a report about North Korean refugees in China when they were seized by North Korean agents along the border between the two countries. The U.S. government immediately expressed its dismay and called on North Korea to release the two women on humanitarian grounds. But it is hardly a foregone conclusion that the North will comply anytime soon. The two women have become yet another bargaining chip between Washington and Pyongyang, and “no one knows at this point what the North will want for them,” says a diplomat in Seoul. (See pictures of North Koreans at the polls.)

Though Americans will wake up this morning shocked by the harshness of the verdict, they shouldn’t be. This is, sadly, business as usual for the North. The regime in Pyongyang is nothing if not a Mafia state — a family-run dynasty that funds itself in part through a variety of illicit businesses, such as illegal arms sales and counterfeiting U.S. currency. For decades, international kidnapping has been in its playbook. (See pictures of North Korea’s secrets and lies at LIFE.com.)

In 2002, Pyongyang admitted what many in Japan had been saying for years — that it had systematically kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ’80s, using them to train its spies, who were then filtered back into Japan. Kim Jong Il said at a 2002 summit meeting with then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that the North had seized 12 Japanese citizens (though he also said to Koizumi that he himself was unaware of the program), including, most infamously, 13-year-old Megumi Yokota, who was abducted on the way home from school in Niigata, on the northwestern Japanese coast. Kim had hoped the admission would help relations with Japan. It didn’t. Private groups in Japan have insisted that the total number of abductees was greatly understated. Indeed, the Investigative Commission on Missing Japanese Probably Related to North Korea, a citizens’ group working on the missing cases, says it’s possible that the number could be much larger — possibly as high as 500. Pyongyang further inflamed the Japanese in 2004 when it returned a jar of ashes that they claimed were the remains of young Yokota. The Japanese government asked Teikyo University to conduct DNA tests to verify that they were Yokota’s remains. They were not. (See pictures of Kim Jong Il.)

The regime has also kidnapped several hundred South Koreans over the years — usually also to help train its spies, but not always. Since late March, the North has detained a South Korean business executive who was working at the Gaesong Industrial District, a site just across the border, where scores of South Korean companies set up light manufacturing operations. The project was arguably the most visible success of the so-called Sunshine Policy run by Roh Moo Hyun, the former South Korean President who committed suicide in May. Pyongyang revoked all the contracts at Gaesong last month and has continued to hold the businessman, apparently as a way to express its anger at current South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s harder line toward the North.

But it’s not always some twisted policy goal that drives Pyongyang to kidnapping; Kim has also resorted to abduction to satisfy his personal whims. The North Korean dictator has long had a passion for movies, but he evidently believed North Korea’s cinema wasn’t up to his standards. In the late ’70s, when his father Kim Il Sung was running the country, Kim apparently ordered the abduction of Shin Sang-ok, then perhaps the most famous film producer in the South, and his wife, Choi Eun-hee, a famous actress. Shin was imprisoned for four years, then forced to make a socialist-friendly version of Godzilla. He and his wife eventually escaped during a business trip to Vienna in 1986. Shin died in 2006 at age 80.

North Korea, in the minds of many Americans, is often seen as a kind of crazy aunt in the attic — an entity no one pays attention to until she pops out and does something vaguely nutty. Sometimes Kim Jong Il is even portrayed as a figure of comic relief, as in South Park’s Team America: World Police. Indeed, Google North Korea, and up pops up a site titled “6 Reasons North Korea Is the Funniest Evil Dictatorship Ever.”

Strike funniest. Other adjectives are more fitting. The families of the two young journalists headed now into the grips of what is quite possibly the world’s worst penal system aren’t laughing today. And neither, most assuredly, is anyone in Barack Obama’s White House.
— With reporting by Emily Rauhala / Hong Kong

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