Fiskings Ling/Lee Incident The Camps

Jackass Mails Hash to Self in South Korea, Does Time, Compares Self to Laura Ling and Euna Lee

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.


  1. CNN should be forced to read this little essay, just so they might know how ignorant they have been in using such a fellow as a source.


  2. What’s even worse is that Cullen Thomas was interviewed on MSNBC during their tv coverage about Laura and Euna.
    He said South Korean prisons had third world conditions, and then he had the nerve to say that Laura and Euna were treated better in North Korea than he was in South Korea.
    To top it all off, he showed off his book about his prison term in SK.


  3. How quick we all are to attack and judge. Have you read Cullen Thomas’ book? Do you understand anything about asian culture yourself? Have you vetted the man’s knowledge of asian culture and history? Or does the fact that he smoked hash discredit anything he will produce since his crime? Interesting. Let’s start writing nifty little pieces about all those other folks who have been commentators in the political arena, and yes, smoked the weed. Oh wait—we might seem a bit hasty considering the nation is working towards legalization…

    That Cullen Thomas committed a crime and received a sentence according to the Korean justice system is no mystery. In fact, it makes your writing appear that much more the pale being wasted on such an obvious “fisking.” “He showed off his book?” Are you crazy? So, now Cullen does the programming and producing for msNBC as well? Take your anger out on msnbc and cnnn—they chose him as a speaker and decided to show his book on screen.

    Isn’t it always easier to put forth complaints and attacks without any observations of merit of your own? How about putting down your anger and looking at the reality—Cullen Thomas IS an authority on Korean culture. He spoke Korean well and made good topical points consistent with every other take and valid with the outcome of the situation. Are you really that upset about Cullen’s appearance considering the amount of crap that floats by in our media. Spend time attacking those that deserve it. Cullen paid for his crime in my book. He has gone on to try to make something of himself and has used his experiences to build himself. Read his book. You might actually accept him.

    …and people, you should be worried about things like Crystal Meth, Crack, Cocaine, Heroin, and designer drugs that permeate every level of today’s America! Smoke a joint and chill out already!


  4. I believe the four years I spent prosecuting and defending soldiers in the UCMJ system in Korea — including too many who’d been swallowed by the Korean legal system without the luxury of actually being guilty of anything — qualifies me in the recognition of applied idiocy. Cullen Thomas has illustrated it no less then three times: (1) becoming a habitual hash smoker, (2) mailing himself that ticket for the Midnight Express, and (3) writing this shallow, inane article that draws a comparison between a dope smuggler’s imprisonment in South Korea with a journalist’s imprisonment in North Korea, thereby letting the whole world know what a dumbass he truly is, and on how many levels. Oh, and I should add (4) submitting that picture of himself, truly looking the part.


  5. I must have been traveling from Seoul back to California and then Hawaii when this post was up, because it seems I completely missed this gem from 2009. I saw it just now when The Marmot in this recent post (a relevant and worthy read) linked to this post.

    Setting aside what an idiot the guy is and how he’s trying to milk that for all it’s worth, what annoys me about his appearance on CNN is the way they conflate South Korea and North Korea. Right off the bat, in CNN’s introduction to Mr Thomas’s appearance, I knew it would be unworthy of my time.

    I loathe the press’s laziness, both intellectual and structural.



Comments are closed.