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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Jailing U.S. journalists could prove costly

LOS ANGELES — Call me a dupe of the commies if that makes you happy — I really don't care at this point. Maybe all these years I have been wrong to argue that we can negotiate with North Korea; maybe my critics are right and the regime does need to be either ignored and further isolated or, in the worst case scenario, attacked.

All I care about right now is getting Pyongyang to release those two American journalists.

The two women were recently sentenced to years of hard labor for alleged espionage against North Korea. Back in March, you see, they were standing (1) near or (2) on or (3) slightly inside the border between China and North Korea, working on a story for their San Francisco-based cable and Internet station, co-owned and most prominently fronted by Al Gore, former U.S. vice president.

Before the journalists knew it, North Korean border guards grabbed them, and charged them with high crimes. Fairness, justice and a sense of proportion are not qualities the world has grown to expect from North Korea. That area of the border is miles from military sites, not to mention the capital, Pyongyang.

American hawks on the North Korean issue will view this latest act of state as further proof that, for this regime, the best diplomacy bashes with sticks and offers no carrots: Reasoning with the regime is a fool's errand. And the fools are sillies like me who have campaigned for the six-party talks aimed at nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula, insisting that no rational alternative to negotiation exists. Do we really want to go to war?

To be sure, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, the two sentenced journalists, are probably viewed by Pyongyang's deep thinkers as bargaining chips whose grandiose release would shower them with U.S. concessions of some kind. But here they may have greatly miscalculated. The Obama administration cannot afford to be seen as kowtowing to blackmail, especially with Iran and other difficult regimes watching the unfolding drama carefully. That would risk encouraging other evil actors to try to parlay a similar ploy.

The Obama administration's room for maneuver is limited, but it's not limited for those of us outside of government who also care about the plight of these relative youngsters. We need to do what we can to get them sprung. Some of their colleagues and friends have organized petition drives; others have been working private lines to Pyongyang. Journalists have been writing articles and editorials.

I feel involved in this mess not just because one of the journalists was a former star student of mine but also because of my long advocacy of trying to negotiate directly with that government, however tortuous the process. But now Pyongyang has made everyone wonder: Is this regime totally out of its mind? If these journalists are not soon released — as a gesture of international responsibility, not in the cause of cheap blackmailing — the ranks of those Americans who have no hope at all for this regime will grow exponentially, as will the call for military action.

In history's ledgers, Pyongyang's leaders might want to recall, it is often seemingly little incidents — like this one — that trigger large and violent wars. Remember, in 2006, Hamas snatched one Israeli soldier, helping to trigger, rightly or wrongly, retaliatory hell in Lebanon and Gaza. And if the force option seems implausible to Pyongyang, its leaders need only recall the 2003 near-unilateral American invasion of Iraq, not to mention the 2007 unilateral Israeli military airstrike on a budding Syrian nuclear site using clandestine North Korean technology.

Perhaps North Korea can be induced to listen to reason. If so, I would be willing to travel to Pyongyang as a longtime Asia columnist and private citizen — not bankrolled by any government, much less in the clandestine employ of the CIA — to help facilitate the ladies' release.

The North Koreans must be made to see the light. One hopes that the presumably wiser heads at the very top of this government recognize their underlings' miscalculation in snatching the ladies. The relevant parties in North Korea and elsewhere know how to get in touch with me. Send the signal, and I — as well as almost any other equally concerned American journalist — am in Pyongyang whenever it is requested.

I want to be asked to do whatever I can to save these well-intentioned journalists from further misery, as well as to salvage my decades-old hypothesis that negotiating with North Korea is not stupid.

Career journalist Tom Plate, an American university professor for 14 years, is the author of six books, including "Confessions of an American Media Man." © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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