Journalists in foreign jails


I was thrilled when the Iranian government released Roxanna Saberi from jail after originally sentencing her to eight years for espionage.

Ms. Saberi is the American journalist who spent four months in an Iranian jail, first charged with purchasing alcohol – illegal in Iran – then for acting as a reporter without a press pass, and ultimately for espionage, because she had access to a classified report. Ms. Saberi’s father is ethnically Iranian, her mother is ethnically Japanese, and Ms. Saberi and her family now are American citizens living in North Dakota.

Ms. Saberi had a closed-door trial, where she was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to eight years in jail. She appealed the sentence and was awarded a two year suspended sentence and allowed to leave the country. I have no idea why they let her go, but I’m guessing it had to do with the amount of international attention to the case, and the fact that it allowed the government of Iran a relatively low-cost way to look benevolent. After all, I can’t imagine they really wanted to keep this woman in jail and deal with constant US and Japanese pressure to release her, when her crimes weren’t all that heinous, even to the Iranian government. It also provided an opportunity for the Iranian government to demonstrate that it is looking toward positive relations with the Obama administration.

Most of all, I was happy about the way the US handled the situation. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton carefully lobbied for Ms. Saberi while not insulting the Iranian government. They called for a fair trial and objective weighing of the evidence, but never once attacked or berated the government. Nice change.

So it ended well for Ms. Saberi. The international attention paid off, and she and her family have returned safely to the United States.

On the other hand, there are currently two female American journalists in jail in North Korea for espionage, and their plight has received far less press or overt international attention.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested on March 17th by North Korea for “illegal entry and hostile acts.” At the time of their arrest, Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee were filming a documentary for former vice president Al Gore’s San Francisco-based Current TV. They were on China’s northeastern Tumen River border with North Korea, reporting on North Korean defectors fleeing starvation and disease as well as arrest, torture, and beatings. They were not supposed to be filming in North Korea, but it is possible they stepped over the frozen Tumen River into North Korea.

Unlike Ms. Saberi, Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee have not had regular visitors, do not have loquacious attorneys, and are not allowed to see their parents. They are being held separately in a “guest house” outside the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, they have received two brief visits from a Swedish diplomat. Although a South Korean paper reported that the two women are “undergoing intense interrogation,” there is no evidence they are being tortured. The cameraman who was with the women when they were arrested, Mitch Koss, escaped and has returned to the United States, but has not issued any public statements on the incident.

The Government of North Korea announced that the two women will be tried on June 4th. It also announced that the women admitted to entering illegally and to “hostile acts.” If convicted, they could receive up to 20 years in a prison camp.

So why aren’t we banging our collective American drums trying to get them out? The simple answer is because North Korea is not Iran. In a rare display of foreign policy insight, the Obama administration has treated the Ling/Lee case completely differently than the Saberi case. Actions that produced positive results in Iran may not produce the same results in North Korea, so the Obama administration is taking a different tact: behind the scenes negotiations, no full-court-press campaign, and subtle, slow talks.

The US government has urged both the Ling and Lee family to be as discreet as possible, noting that any attempt at public pressure by the families may complicate negotiations. The families have acquiesced, in hopes that the diplomatic efforts will result in the release of their daughters.

The deal is…the US and North Korea are in the middle of this whole big nuclear thing, and now Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee have managed to get woven into the mix. They were arrested just before North Korea launched a long-range nuclear missile, on April 5th. Most of the international community, under the auspices of the United Nations, condemned the action, and ordered North Korea not to conduct any further tests. North Korea responded by expelling UN nuclear inspectors and said it would conduct a nuclear test in the near future. It also withdrew from all future nuclear negotiations with the six countries that currently have nuclear weapons.

What does any of that have to do with two journalists? In North Korea’s eyes, probably everything. For one thing, North Korea likely believes the women were collecting at least some information on the nuclear program. Additionally, the North Korean government probably sees the women as a wonderful bargaining opportunity. It is highly likely that the government will, subtly, offer to release the two women in exchange for political and financial concessions from the United States.

The arrest of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee also provides North Korea with an excuse to open a dialogue with the United States. After the missile test and the strong reaction, North Korea probably could not request talks. In the eyes of the Government of North Korea, this would make them appear weak. Because the government has Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee, it can approach talks from the standpoint of their release and then introduce nuclear issues without appearing to concede.

The Obama administration has again taken a mature attitude by remaining open to talks with the government and by refusing to issue inflammatory rhetoric around the nuclear program, human rights, or the arrest of Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee. This probably offers the best chance that they will win release. Notably, since the 1990s, three other Americans have been detained by the North for extended periods after being accused of entering the country. All three were released after negotiations.

Let’s hope history repeats itself.

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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.