Jeff Jacoby / August 3, 2009

Held Hostage in North Korea

For nearly five months, two American journalists have been held hostage by the government of North Korea. Most Americans, it seems, couldn’t care less. The abduction of the two women - both married, one the mother of a young daughter - hasn’t evoked one-tenth of the passion that followed the death of Michael Jackson or the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. Why aren’t we up in arms over this abuse of our fellow citizens? Why is there no deafening hue and cry for their release?

Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two reporters for San Francisco-based Current TV, were seized by North Korean guards on March 17. They were on assignment along the country’s border with China, investigating the plight of North Korean refugees and human trafficking victims. The North Korean regime has a history of abducting innocent foreigners, then using them to extort bribes or propaganda concessions from the West. So there is every reason to doubt its claim that Ling and Lee illegally crossed the border, let alone that they freely confessed to “criminal acts’’ or to planning a “smear campaign’’ against North Korea.

In June, Ling and Lee were convicted in a closed trial and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. They have been held in an unidentified detention center - two more pawns to be used in Pyongyang’s never-ending shakedown of the United States. Washington has responded quietly. There has been no public condemnation of North Korea’s thuggish behavior, only a request that the women be granted “amnesty’’ and set free. At the State Department’s insistence, a mild congressional resolution urging the journalists’ release was withdrawn by its sponsor, Representative Adam Schiff of California. It is presumably also in deference to State’s wishes that Current TV and former vice president Al Gore, the cable channel’s lead backer, have declined to comment publicly on the case.

Is this “softly, softly’’ approach really the best way to deal with the demented totalitarians who rule North Korea? Some behind-the-scenes payoff to Pyongyang may bring Ling and Lee home, but won’t it also pave the way for a fresh outrage, followed by renewed extortion, down the road?

But even if a case can be made for quiet diplomacy - American officials may worry that expressing official anger too loudly will only drive up the price of the women’s freedom - what excuse do the rest of us have?

Perhaps it would help to be reminded of the nature of the regime in which Ling and Lee have been trapped since March. Here is a taste of it:

“A Christian woman accused of distributing the Bible, a book banned in communist North Korea, was publicly executed last month for the crime, South Korean activists said yesterday.’’

So began a recent Associated Press dispatch from Seoul noting the death of Ri Hyon Ok, a 33-year-old mother of three. According to the Investigative Commission on Crime Against Humanity, a South Korean human-rights coalition, punishment for Ri’s “crimes’’ was meted out to her entire extended family: The day after she was executed, her husband, children, and parents were all thrown in prison.

Kim Jong Il’s Stalinist dictatorship may be the most evil regime on the planet today. Quite apart from its aggressive international provocations - in recent months it has tested a nuclear bomb, launched ballistic missiles, and renounced the armistice that ended the Korean War - its domestic human-rights abuses are beyond horrendous. While nearly all North Koreans suffer repression, the worst off by far are the hundreds of thousands trapped in Kim’s monstrous slave-labor gulag. Inmates in these slow-death camps - to which men, women, and children are sent for such “crimes’’ as complaining about living conditions or neglecting to dust the dictator’s picture - are routinely murdered through starvation, torture, or brutal forced labor. The few refugees to have escaped report unspeakable horrors: pregnant women killed and their fetuses fed to dogs; children impaled on hooks and dangled over a fire; whole families used as guinea pigs to test chemical weapons. And more.

In the hands of the savages who preside over such malignance are two American women, journalists arrested while giving voice to the voiceless. Laura Ling and Euna Lee deserve better from their countrymen than apathy and inattention. Do something to help them. You can start at 

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