When the news of Laura Ling and Euna Lee’s release broke, I warned you that you were going to read a lot of really stupid things, and you are. But a reader also forwards a link to something completely unexpected from Cullen Thomas, writing at The Daily Beast.
What could be more useful in making sense of an isolated and unpredictable rogue state’s holding of journalists as hostages than the unique perspective of a hash-smoking ex-con who did time in Chonan, South Korea? Screw Mitch Koss. Has the CIA debriefed this guy?
This story reminded me very much of my experience of being held and tried for a crime in South Korea in the 1990s. Yes, North and South have their obvious differences, ….
Sure, the cases aren’t exactly alike. But aside from the offenses, the absence of hostage-holding and nuclear brinkmanship in one case, the completely different ways in which the two Korean different judicial systems are unfair, the utter lack of international and political sympathy or interest in one case, North Korea’s routine torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of prisoners, the lack of any socially redeeming behavior on Thomas’s part, the fact that South Korea hasn’t isolated itself from the entire world — in short, the lack of any greater interest, significance, or newsworthiness to Thomas’s story — it’s a great analogy.
In advance of my criminal trial in Seoul in 1994–I had stupidly mailed myself hashish from the Philippines; the indiscretion of a 23-year-old–Korean guards and prisoners at the Seoul Detention Center urged and recommended me, as they did the other foreign prisoners as well, not only to plead guilty to my offense (I was guilty) but more importantly to show remorse in front of the judges.
As someone who has given exactly that advice to no small number of dead-to-rights guilty American soldiers facing courts-martial, I’d like to interject to question whether Mr. Thomas is describing a particularly Korean characteristic here. Still, Mr. Thomas seems to perceive himself as an authority on Asian cultural psychology. It’s a rather odd path toward international academic recognition, this. But with the patience of an experienced teacher, he introduces us to the vagaries of the oriental mind that some might not have mastered by browsing the dust jackets of James Clavell novels in airport bookstores:
The second reason that Laura Ling’s statement that she and Lee did break the law and were not then simply unwitting victims of the nefarious North Korean state was a wise and positive step is that it allowed the North Korean authorities enough “face” to release the two reporters.
It had not occurred to me that a tyrant who was just about to flout two U.N. resolutions, test an ICBM, and then test a nuclear weapon wanted nothing more than a quiet, graceful exit from the undue harshness of a sentence to 12 years in the gulag, no doubt the result of that fiercely independent rogue elephant known as the North Korean judiciary.
The North then would be letting them go out of mercy and clemency, they could legitimately claim, and have the event be a show of their magnanimity. To have this cover, this “face” in place, is absolutely vital to the two women’s chances of getting out.
I’m glad you approve, Cullen, and relieved that you manage not to use the word “stoked” even once. Do enlighten us more:
Secretary of State Clinton’s public comments last month–describing the remorse of the two reporters and their families and asking North Korea to grant Ling and Lee “amnesty”–were an excellent step in this direction. Bill presumably continued on that tack.
I’ve been told that cannabis has the quizzical effect of causing people to believe that all problems — even problems with nuclear-armed rogue psychopaths — can be solved by deep conversations; hence, Mr. Thomas apparently believes that good diplomacy can solve all of our problems with North Korea. There is, of course, the discordant note of last month’s infantilization of international diplomacy: “You have no friends,” “You look like an elderly pensioner on a shopping trip.” Better-informed readers might want to see this explained away, but in that context, you could say this was almost like diplomatic make-up sex. You could say it, and we could laugh at you.
Then Thomas, missing the more obvious comparison, imagines the conditions in which Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee might have been held and compares it what he endured. Apparently, Chonan harshed his mellow:
And even in the South there was a strong and ever present sense of the authorities trying to shield and separate us foreigners from the raw realities of the Korean underbelly. We were put into our own cellblock, and there were serious qualms about letting us live and work among the Korean convicts in the prison factories. In addition, prison rule forbade us from writing about the prisons, and guards and officers often told me to speak well of Korea, to give a favorable impression back to the world at large after my release.
Sounds like their plan had a flaw, though it’s a mystery why Korean prison guards would go to such painstaking efforts to protect the republic’s reputation against someone who so obviously got what he deserved. How any of this informs us about Laura Ling, Euna Lee, or North Korea is still apparently beyond my powers of comprehension.