You have to ask yourself: is North Korea deliberately pressing a confrontation with the United States? Apart from the news about past and possibly future missile tests, the latest evidence that North Korea is seemingly playing “chicken” with Washington is that two American journalists have been sentenced to what some say were unusually harsh sentence in a labor camp:
A North Korean court sentenced two U.S. journalists to 12 years in a labor camp Monday, as the government of Kim Jong Il continued to ratchet up tension with the United States and its neighbors.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, television reporters detained in March along North Korea’s border with China, received harsher sentences than many outsiders had expected. But several experts in South Korea predicted that talks will begin soon to negotiate their release.
The U.S. government said it was “deeply concerned.”
The five-day trial of Ling and Lee was held in Pyongyang’s Central Court, the top court in North Korea. Outside observers were not allowed.
“The trial confirmed the grave crime they committed against the Korean nation and their illegal border crossing,” the official Korean Central News Agency said. It said the court sentenced “each of them to 12 years of reform through labor.”
The “grave crime,” however, was not explained. The reporters had earlier been accused of unspecified “hostile acts.” Legal analysts in South Korea said the North Korean court may have sentenced the women to the maximum of 10 years of hard labor for hostile acts and added on two years for illegal entry.
Here’s an AP video report on the issue posted on You Tube:
Meanwhile, the timing of this is certainly suspect. Aside from being peppered with verbal denunciations from the United States and other countries for its “waddaygoingtodoabouddit>” series of missle tests, there are signs now that Washington is getting ready to respond to North Korea:
The Obama administration signaled Sunday that it was seeking a way to interdict, possibly with China’s help, North Korean sea and air shipments suspected of carrying weapons or nuclear technology.
The administration also said it was examining whether there was a legal basis to reverse former President George W. Bush’s decision last year to remove the North from a list of states that sponsor terrorism.
The reference to interdictions — preferably at ports or airfields in countries like China, but possibly involving riskier confrontations on the high seas — was made by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was the highest-ranking official to talk publicly about such a potentially provocative step as a response to North Korea’s second nuclear test, conducted two weeks ago.
While Mrs. Clinton did not specifically mention assistance from China, other administration officials have been pressing Beijing to take such action under Chinese law.
But will the situation remain static? Quite possibly not: Reuters offers this list of scenarios of steps North Korea could take to retaliate for any punishment it receives from the UN.
Meanwhile, David Straub, iacting director of Korean studies at Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center and a former State Department Korean affairs director, notes that North Korea’s regime is exteme but not crazy:
Pyongyang has often engaged in provocative behavior, but lately the pace and tone of its threats have worsened considerably. After suffering a stroke last fall, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il seems to have begun the process of naming his 26-year-old third son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. The nuclear and rocket tests may have been aimed at boosting nationalistic enthusiasm for the move. Even in North Korea there may be those who question the legitimacy of yet another dynastic succession there.
But while extreme and anachronistic, North Korean leaders are not irrational. Fundamentally, they feel they must have a nuclear “deterrent,” as they call it, to re-balance their relationship with South Korea. North Korean leaders believe theirs to be the legitimate Korean regime on the peninsula, but they know that democratic South Korea is decades ahead of them, economically, diplomatically, and in conventional military terms.
Information about North Korea is scarce but two decades of dealing with North Korea have given American policymakers a much better understanding of the regime. The North’s brinkmanship playbook is now well known, and the Obama administration is determined not to play that game anymore. It has made clear it is willing to deal fairly with North Korea but that it will increase diplomatic, financial, and military pressures on the regime until it agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
The United States will need to proceed very carefully. There is no perfect North Korea policy, no silver bullet that will suddenly end all of the challenges the regime poses. Although North Korea is basically a failing country, its artillery arrayed along the Demilitarized Zone just north of Seoul could cause hundreds of thousands of casualties there. Over the past decades, the North Koreans have come to believe that they almost always win when they engage in a game of chicken with the United States and South Korea. They will almost certainly continue their provocations until they think they have won the latest match.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.