FOR NEARLY FIVE MONTHS, two American journalists have been held hostage by the government of North Korea. Most Americans, it seems, couldn't care less. The abduction of the two young women -- both married, one the mother of a small daughter -- hasn't evoked one-tenth of the passion that followed the death of Michael Jackson or the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. Why aren't we up in arms over this abuse of our fellow-citizens? Why is there no deafening hue and cry for their release?
Current TV journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling have been imprisoned in North Korea since March 17
In June, Ling and Lee were convicted in a closed trial and sentenced to 12 years at hard labor. They have been held since then in an unidentified detention center -- two more pawns to be used in Pyongyang's never-ending shakedown of the United States. Washington has responded quietly. There has been no public condemnation of North Korea's thuggish behavior, only a request that the women be granted "amnesty" and set free. At the State Department's insistence, a mild congressional resolution urging the release of Ling and Lee was withdrawn by its sponsor, Representative Adam Schiff of California. It is presumably also in deference to State's wishes that Current TV and former Vice President Al Gore, the cable channel's lead backer, have declined to comment publicly on the case.
Is this "softly, softly" approach really the best way to deal with the demented totalitarians who rule North Korea? Some behind-the-scenes payoff to Pyongyang may bring Ling and Lee home, but it will also, inevitably, pave the way for a fresh outrage, followed by renewed extortion, down the road.
But even if a case can be made for quiet diplomacy -- American officials may worry that expressing official anger too loudly will only drive up the price of the women's freedom -- what excuse do the rest of us have?
Perhaps it would help to be reminded of the nature of the regime in which Ling and Lee have been trapped since March. Here is a taste of it:
"A Christian woman accused of distributing the Bible, a book banned in communist North Korea, was publicly executed last month for the crime, South Korean activists said yesterday."
So began a recent Associated Press dispatch from Seoul noting the death of Ri Hyon Ok, a 33-year-old mother of three. According to the Investigative Commission on Crime Against Humanity, a South Korean human-rights coalition, Ri was accused of organizing dissidents in addition to practicing Christianity. As is routine in North Korea, punishment was meted out to her entire extended family: The day after Ri was executed, her husband, children, and parents were all thrown in prison.
Kim Jong Il's Stalinist dictatorship may be the most evil regime on the planet today.
Quite apart from its aggressive international provocations -- in recent months North Korea has tested a nuclear bomb, launched ballistic missiles, threatened to "wipe out" the United States, and renounced the armistice that ended the Korean War -- its domestic human-rights abuses are beyond horrendous. Political and economic freedoms are nonexistent, North Koreans are banned from leaving the country, and virtually every aspect of daily life is ruthlessly controlled by the state.
Worst off are the hundreds of thousands of North Koreans trapped in Kim's horrific slave-labor gulag. Inmates in these slow-death camps -- to which men, women, and children are sent for such "crimes" as complaining about living conditions or neglecting to dust the dictator's picture -- are routinely murdered through starvation, torture, or brutal forced labor. The few refugees to have escaped report unspeakable horrors: Pregnant women killed and their fetuses fed to dogs. Children impaled on hooks and dangled over a fire. Whole families used as guinea pigs to test chemical weapons. And more.
In the hands of the savages who preside over such malignance are two American women, journalists arrested while giving voice to the voiceless. Laura Ling and Euna Lee deserve better from their countrymen than apathy and inattention. Do something to help them: Spread the word. Sign a petition. Attend a vigil. You can start at LauraandEuna.com.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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