The rogue state of North Korea is playing with the lives of two U.S. journalists. In a secret trial it has convicted the television reporters on vague charges and sentenced them to 12 years of "reform through labor." The object seems to be to use the women as a bargaining chip in negotiations for food, energy or other goods. Securing the women's release will be particularly complicated, given the reported maneuvering to choose a successor to Kim Jong II and tensions over the country's nuclear weapons program. But leaving Laura Ling and Euna Lee in a North Korean labor camp is not a long-term option.
The women are television reporters for Current TV, a network founded by former Vice President Al Gore. They were arrested in March by North Korean soldiers while reporting on a story about North Koreans who escape to China. The five-day trial was held without any members of the general public or the women's families being allowed to observe. Ling and Lee were each convicted of an unspecified "grave crime" as well as illegal border crossing.
The women have done nothing wrong beyond attempting to gather news on one of the most secretive and isolated nations in the world. Ling and Lee are pawns in North Korea's ongoing efforts to gain political leverage. The nation recently launched a long-range missile and exploded a nuclear device in defiance of U.N. resolutions. Then, in response to world criticism, it angrily nullified the truce that ended the Korean war. In the heat of all this Ling and Lee were tried and drew excessively harsh sentences even by North Korean standards. At least the women were not sent to the worst labor camps — presumably because the North Koreans do not want anyone to see those horrific conditions.
Negotiations for Ling and Lee's release are sure to be complicated by the current hostility, so the timing for negotiations could be better. But the Obama administration must free the women using whatever tools it has — including enlisting help from China and other nations influential with the North Koreans — without lessening pressure on the country to dismantle its nuclear weapons program. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday called on North Korea to release the journalists immediately and said the administration would use all tools available to help free them. The trick will be steering talks toward humanitarian issues while taking a hard line on nuclear weapons and other security issues.