Holding Journalists Could Backfire on North Korea

The sentencing of two U.S. journalists thrust North Korea back into the headlines.


When North Korea sentenced two young American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, to 12 years in a hard-labor camp for entering the country illegally, it thrust the reclusive country back into the headlines at a moment when the United States' diplomatic attention is occupied with the Middle East. The harshness of the verdict was shocking, and it was clear that North Korea wanted to grab international attention. But to what end?

One possibility is that North Korea wants to use the two women as leverage for concessions related to its nuclear program. "I expect them to use them as a bargaining chip because they've always done that," says Bruce Cumings, a North Korea expert at the University of Chicago.

Most likely, North Korea wants a high-level envoy to visit Pyongyang to secure the release of Ling and Lee. The two leading candidates are reportedly Al Gore, the head of the journalists' employer, Current TV, and Bill Richardson, who has negotiated for years with North Korea. A visit by either would provide attention and give the North Koreans access to someone close to the White House. But what North Korea might hope to gain from negotiating over the two journalists isn't clear, and Cumings says it won't become clear until someone speaks to them.

North Korea, most likely, was feeling ignored by the White House and wanted to get Obama's attention, he added.

Calling this kind of attention to itself may backfire, though, because it's putting Obama in a difficult position politically and will make it hard for him to pursue the engagement that he favors. "The North Koreans have either deliberately or inadvertently missed the point Obama made when he said, 'When you unclench your fist, we'll talk to you.' North Korea has clenched both of its fists and has been shaking them at him ever since," Cumings says.

But Ling and Lee may not just be bargaining chips. North Korea's leadership sees its control over the country slowly slipping away, and the arrest of the two women may be a high-profile attempt to show that the government remains in control, says Scott Snyder, an associate at the Asia Foundation and author of a book on North Korean negotiating strategies. "This is a regime that is increasingly losing political control, and information is one of those threats. And now it's been personified—journalists are responsible for the flow of information," Snyder says. "When the leadership feels like it has less control over what is happening in its political space, they may want to try to make a statement about their capacity to control."

Adding to the tension within North Korea is that the country appears to be in the middle of a leadership transition: North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, has reportedly decided to hand over power to his youngest son, 26-year-old Kim Jong Un. In that context, the harsh sentence given to the women, along with recent missile and nuclear tests, may be intended as a demonstration of the country's strength. "They may feel that they're sending a message to the outside world: Leave us alone right now, and whatever you do, don't challenge our sovereignty," Snyder says.

But if North Korea is trying to control information by convicting the two women, it might not work. "There will come a time when North Korea no longer feels the women are useful to it and will send them home," Cumings says. And when that happens, Ling and Lee, having gotten an unprecedented look at North Korea from the inside, are going to have the scoops of their lives.