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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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