Let Them Eat Cabbage

August 11, 2009

For an atheist, Christopher Hitchens sure does put a lot of faith in predestination. It’s not the kind about going to heaven, though; Hitchens believes that Bill Clinton need not have visited North Korea to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee because – get this – the North Koreans were going to release them anyway. In the man’s own words:

The two young women were picked up in March and released in August. That means they spent almost half a year in the North Korean prison system. Yet to judge by the photographs of them arriving back on U.S. soil, they were in approximately the same physical condition as they had been when they were first unlawfully apprehended. … Ling and Lee had obviously not been maltreated or emaciated in the usual way that even a North Korean civilian, let alone a North Korean prisoner, could expect to be. The logical corollary of this is obvious. The Kim Jong-il gang was always planning to release them. They were arrested in order to be let go and were maintained in releasable shape until the deal could be done. …

As of last week, and as the result of a huge investment of time and energy and prestige and forced politeness, we can now claim to have reduced the North Korean prison population by exactly two, and they were going to be released anyway. In return, we have immensely gratified and flattered the man who kidnapped them and who makes a daily mockery of international law. There was even “remorse” expressed. But guess by whom? Not by the slave master who makes his territory impossible to enter and impossible to leave. A lousy day’s work.

I don’t write much about foreign policy in this space, mostly because of my ignorance in these matters. However, even I can tell that Hitchens’ reasoning is patently stupid. First, Hitchens forgets that the role of government is to serve and protect its citizens – not least when those citizens are held captive in a hostile foreign country. By his own admission, Hitchens had been to North Korea. I doubt that if he had been detained, we would have gotten from him a heroic statement directing his government to forfeit rescue efforts. Pending any evidence to the contrary, I conclude that Hitchens views imprisonment by a brutal dictatorship as bad for Christopher Hitchens, but okay for his compatriots.

This brings me to the second point: Hitchens’ baseless conclusion from Ling and Lee’s appearance that they were going to be released anyway. No one knows what the North Koreans would have eventually done with Ling and Lee. It is plausible that they have not been as mistreated as they might have been so far precisely for the reasons Hitchens identified. However, it is naive – especially of a curmudgeon like Hitchens – to assume that this treatment would have continued indefinitely. If and when the North Koreans ceased to see the journalists as an excellent bargaining chip, nothing would have prevented or even dissuaded them from shipping the two to a labor camp.

Finally, Hitchens’ tone suggests that he favors either ignoring or bullying the North Korean government. Neither of these measures have succeeded in the past: when bullied, North Korea only grew more antagonistic; and when ignored, it staged dangerous, belligerent stunts to regain the world’s attention. I may not know anything about foreign policy, but I think there is a better way to deal with North Korea: reciprocity from the moral high ground, as famously articulated by Ho Chi Minh* at the start of the Vietnam War:

Everything depends on the Americans. If they want to make war for 20 years then we shall make war for 20 years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to tea afterwards.

* I am not arguing that Ho held the moral high ground, only that he had claimed it.

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2 Responses to “Let Them Eat Cabbage”


  1. I’m not much of a foreign policy mind either, but I think Hitchens is right about one thing: it’s unlikely that North Korea would have abused the two prisoners too thoroughly, knowing that they’d be useful bargaining chips.

    That being said, you’re obviously right that sending Clinton was the appropriate response. Securing the safe release of two American prisoners without giving Kim Jong-Il any concessions at all in response seems like a victory to me.

  2. grandmute Says:

    It’s not that I’m concerned that Ling and Lee would have been tortured because of who they are (or for any information they might have held). It’s more that I suspect that once the pair had outlived their usefulness as a bargaining chip (e.g., if the US explicitly declined to seek their release, or even if we had simply let the matter drag on for too long), they would slip through the cracks into the general pool of North Korean political prisoners. And from there on out, their safety would have been anything but assured.


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