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What Euna and Laura Faced in North Korea

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Jailed journalists Euna Lee and Lisa Ling faced unimaginable horrors.

euna lee laura ling north korean prison camps

Heather Robinson and Jennifer Ginsberg: Watching journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee return from North Korea escorted by former President Bill Clinton, no one with a heart could fail to be delighted -- and relieved. Mothers across the country were especially moved to see Lee reunite in a long-awaited embrace with her beautiful 4-year-old daughter, Hannah.

These women faced unimaginable horrors; in June, they were sentenced to 12 years each in a forced labor camp overseen by the regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, one of the world's worst human rights violators. But as we rejoice at seeing them back in the United States, we should spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands of human beings trapped in North Korea's nightmarishly brutal Kwan-li-so and Kyo-hwa-so prison labor camps. And we should consider how U.S. foreign policy -- specifically that of former President Clinton -- may have impacted the human rights of those who still suffer at the hands of Kim Jong-il.

North Korea's "labor" camps, as described by investigative reporter Claudia Rossett in the Wall Street Journal, are a vast system of political prisons reserved for people who have done
-- or even said or written -- something Kim Jong-il does not like. It is his policy to imprison dissidents' families (including children and grandchildren) in these nightmarish camps, often for life.

Details emerge sparingly because so few people come out alive. Veteran human rights researcher David Hawk conducted an in-depth series of interviews with 30 North Koreans who have experienced these prison camps first-hand. Mr. Hawk says that, even among the most terrible prison systems on the planet, this system is "the worst."

In these camps, prisoners are systematically starved while being overworked (often to death), in a manner reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps. While it is difficult to know how many people have suffered and died in these camps, most conservative estimates are that they presently hold between 150,000 and 200,000 people.

Particularly harsh special detention centers exist for North Koreans who try to escape to China and fail. There, as told to Mr. Hawk by eight separate eyewitnesses, the newborn infants of women who have attempted to flee to China are routinely murdered on the grounds that "they might have been fathered by Chinese men."

One of Mr. Hawk's interviewees, a 66-year-old grandmother identified as detainee #24, describes being assigned to help deliver babies who were then thrown into plastic-lined boxes to die in bulk lots.

It bears remembering that, while former President Bill Clinton brought home journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling in triumph, as President he employed a policy in North Korea which, however well-intentioned, failed abysmally. Moreover, a case can be made that this policy strengthened Kim Jong-il's ability to oppress millions.

During his term in office, President Clinton gave North Korea hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, food, oil, and even two "light-water" reactors for peaceful use. In return, despite a promise to halt his nuclear weapons program and use the resources to ease his people's suffering, Kim Jong-il channeled those resources into his nuclear weapons program. In the meantime, according to the lowest estimates, 1 million North Koreans starved to death.

Prior to the women's release, President Clinton and Kim Jong-il shared a two-hour dinner, during which Kim Jong-il claimed Clinton "apologized" for U.S. actions. Although the former President denied having made such an apology, it is clear Kim Jong-il was using the situation to score a propagandistic victory.

Grateful as we are for President Clinton's success in bringing these women home, we must not allow this happy ending to put a pretty face on a murderous regime. In formulating policy towards North Korea's brutal government, President Obama should speak softly -- and carry a big stick. Because when it comes to Kim Jong-il, like many a murderous dictator before him, carrots -- when offered as incentives, not rewards -- don't work.

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573 comments so far | Post a comment now
Marylin Pitz August 19, 2009, 2:11 PM

Bravo, MOMLOGIC, for bringing me (your reader) vital world news that informs me beyond the usual “women’s issues,” while keeping clear focus on my woman’s/human/compassionate interests. This story, which reveals an ugly truth about a dangerous regime, is an important one, and the perspective is something I, as a woman, a mother, an American, appreciate having. I see myself as having an obligation, in a free society, to be well-informed. Thanks for providing that. Marylin Pitz

Erik B. August 19, 2009, 2:33 PM

Over the last 5 years, I have had at least a dozens military clients stationed in South Korea.

What few people realize is that these countries are still officially at war with one of the most militarized boarders in the world.

What a great result from the work of a great many private citizens and the government. If Bill Clinton, with all of his flaws, can secure the release of these two journalists,

After her release, Euna Lee write on her site:

“I think of all the individuals who were there at the vigils, who wrote letters to us and to the government, who read and followed our news and were concerned about us and helped Laura and I to come home.

As for the political effect of the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, Americans and citizens of the rest of the world are smart enough to place the release of the journalists in proper perspective.

Tim August 19, 2009, 3:18 PM

Both were bimbos for doing such a stupid thing like trespassing! Especially when one had a child to take care of!

abbi August 19, 2009, 3:42 PM

I agree with Tim.
These two need to shut their pity-garnering traps and be the people they should have been before this whole time/taxpayer-money-wasting fiasco.

They knew the rules,
as far as I’m concerned, they should have got what was coming.
Good Ol’ Uncle Sam to the rescue again, applauding and saving the blatant flouting of rules by one of its’ own.
It’s the American Way.

fenchel August 19, 2009, 5:17 PM

These girls knowingly broke the laws of North Korea and deserved to be punished. Having the US government step in and save them only encourages others to do the same and it has already happened. Three UC Berkeley grads just did the same in Iran even tho they had been warned to stay out of the area.

Sandy August 19, 2009, 5:35 PM

I for one forgot all about the two journalists the minute I read what they do to those babies!! Oh my God that is just so horrific I can’t even believe they could be SO cruel. Maybe Clinton should go back and beg them to let us Americans take those babies and find them homes. I for one would take one right away!!

Lisa August 19, 2009, 6:29 PM

Interesting read…. especially behind the safety of my computer. Made me appreciate things that are often taken for granted. I’m thankful I have a job that doesn’t require me to take life threatening risks and thankful that I live in a country that doesn’t murder children because who their father may or may not be. And although I appreciate our brave troops, I’m thankful that I don’t have to leave my children behind to serve my country.

Megan August 20, 2009, 1:00 AM

I think it’s funny how people can say they broke the laws they deserve it. I forgot who said it but “An unjust law is no law at all” The punishment did not fit the crime and that’s what we should focus on.

Fred Handsome August 20, 2009, 3:50 AM

Or one could observe that the two journalists worked for Al Gore’s Current channel… so, maybe the whole thing was just an elaborate P.R. stunt?

Oh, I’m way ahead of you in terms of bitterness about regimes. Between Amnesty International decrying brutish regimes and the CIA putting in place their own favourite despots, the dignity of regular human beings gets lost. The majority of the world is ruled either with an iron fist or by poverty.

Kim August 20, 2009, 10:17 AM

What exactely did George W do for the last 8 years while he was developing nukes? He wasted resources going after Iraq, where there were no weapons of mass destruction.

Cathrine August 22, 2009, 4:41 AM


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