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North Korea vs. the Bush Legacy

Several months ago, two American journalists from Current TV, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were arrested in North Korea after apparently having illegally crossed the border from China. They were detained, put on trial, and just three days ago sentenced to 12 years of hard labour for having committed “hostile acts”. As I write this, it looks as though we’re within a 10-day window in which North Korea will be responsive to diplomatic outreach (they apparently refuse to negotiate until the legal process is over) and the women are sent to the labour camp, at which time there will no longer be any realistic hope for their release.

This is obviously a terrible tragedy for the women and their families, and my heart sincerely goes out to them. I can barely imagine what they’re going through, and the idea of two innocent women being subjected to 12 years of hard labour deeply bothers me, as I imagine it would bother just about anyone.

However, I am even more deeply disturbed by the case of Lakhdar Boumediene. In his June 8 Huffington Post column, Mitchell Bard describes the case:

An Algerian man living with his wife and two children in Sarajevo, Bosnia, he was working for the Red Crescent in October 2001 when he was arrested and charged with conspiring to blow up the American and British embassies in the city. An investigation revealed no evidence of his involvement in any plot, so a Bosnian judge ordered him released, but the Bush administration intervened, and in January 2002 he was shackled and flown to Guantanamo Bay.

In the end, Boumediene was held for 7 1/2 years in Guantanamo, during which time, he says, he was tortured. He says he was kept up for 16 days straight, beaten, “stretched” (pulled up from under his arms while his feet were shackled to a chair) and forced to run while chained to guards, and if he could not keep up, he was dragged until he was bloody and bruised. After he began a hunger strike, he had food tubes put up his nose and, he claims, soldiers would purposely poke IV needles into the wrong parts of his arm, just to induce pain. But the one thing that was not done to him? Nobody asked if he was involved in a plot to blow up the U.S. and British embassies in Sarajevo. Rather, all he was repeatedly asked was about his connections to al-Qaeda and Osama bin-Laden

If the North Korean regime is an insane, deplorable, neo-Stalinist dystopia, then what does that make us? We’ve detained a large number of innocent people for many years in terrible conditions, giving them no chance whatsoever to plead their case and possibly return home to their loved ones. At least Ling and Lee were given a trial, even if it was merely for show.

The U.S. is now getting ready to dispatch the diplomats, perhaps even Al Gore, to go to Pyongyang and lobby for the journalists’ release. The problem is that we have absolutely no bargaining chips with which to negotiate. We’re not going to roll back any sanctions or let them continue developing nuclear weapons simply for the sake of two people. And we can’t threaten them with military retaliation, or the North Korean army will respond by marching into South Korea and before you know it our already over-extended military will be forced into yet another hopeless conflict. The only thing we can do is plead for their release on humanitarian grounds.

Ten years ago, this might have been an easy proposition. In spite of its many sins, the U.S. was still perceived to be a nation of principles and justice. When Lakhdar Boumediene was captured, as Bard recounts in his article, he believed that because he was innocent it would only be a matter of weeks before he was cleared of any wrongdoing and sent home. He also had every reason to expect that as a prisoner of the United States government he would be treated with dignity and respect. On both accounts, he was tragically wrong.

So now envoys from one nation that holds innocent prisoners for years on end in terrible conditions are going to another nation that holds innocent prisoners for years on end in terrible conditions and asking them respectfully to free its citizens because it’s the right thing to do. North Korea has every right to laugh in our faces and show us the door, because everyone knows if the situations were reversed and the U.S. captured a couple of North Koreans suspected of espionage, they would be granted no such amensty.

Every single right-wing flag-waving asshole out there ought to be beaten over the head with this story again and again and again until it finally registers in their thick skulls that this is exactly why torture and indefinite detention are wrong. Bush himself ought to be whacked on the head until he understands that he is directly to blame for what’s happening to Laura Ling and Euna Lee, and apologises to their families for surrendering the moral authority that would allow us to negotiate with some fucking credibility in these situations. I’d insist we do the same thing to Dick Cheney if I wasn’t so sure he already understands this perfectly well but just doesn’t give a shit.

If I were the U.S. envoy to Pyongyang, I would frame the issue to the North Koreans thusly: “Here you have an opportunity to claim moral superiority to the United States. By releasing the women, you will demonstrate to the world that when it comes to the principles of justice and humanitarianism, North Korea has more credibility than the United States. You will prove that Kim Jong Il is a better man than George W. Bush.”

Let’s hope that Kim Jong Il, a crazy narcissistic fascist dictator with delusions of grandeur and a soul as black as tar, is a better man than George W. Bush. The fate of Laura Lee, Euna Ling, and their families depends on it.

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