On the face of it, North Korea’s sentencing of Laura Ling and Euna Lee to twelve years of hard labor in one of their infamous labor camps is a devastating blow to all of those hoping for their rapid release and return home. Considering the unprecedented stakes and circumstances surrounding their case, Laura and Euna’s predicament is fast evolving into a tricky political situation for President Barack Obama who has made clear his steadfast belief that smart diplomacy can be a panacea for almost all problems facing nations around the planet. It would appear now more than at any prior time in his Presidency, Mr. Obama’s covenant will be tested.
In the three months since Laura Ling and Euna Lee were initially detained by North Korea, the administration and other nations have watched as the secluded communist regime tested a long range missile (April), detonated a nuclear bomb (May), and renounced the truce that ended the Korean War. All the while, from various press accounts, it seems no high level US envoy has engaged their North Korean counterparts and has depended on a Swedish diplomat for information and access to the young women. Fortunately, we do know now that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made a direct appeal to the N. Korean’s to release the girls on humanitarian grounds.
No American, nor any global citizen for that matter should be detained for a period of time without access to information or contact with the rest of the world, tried without representation and sentenced for political purposes. Sadly—to state the obvious—the United States has no moral ground on this situation—just recently, Lakhdar Boumediene’s story is featured on the Huffington Post. Held for more than seven years at Guantanomo, he recounts torture and abuse, before charges against him were dropped, and cries over not knowing the daughter whose upbringing missed while being wrongfully imprisoned.
Now is the time for President Obama to show true leadership on this issue, not outsource it to assorted diplomats and envoys that too often rely on failed policies and politics of the past. Like Presidents in the past—notably FDR and Nixon—who successfully forged new ground on foreign policy, President Obama should pave the way for direct, bilateral talks with North Korea and insure a senior member of his cabinet is assigned to this evolving crisis. Direct talks would demonstrate the US commitment not only to protecting Americans like Laura and Euna but also creating greater stability and security in the region, all the while providing the North Korean regime with the sense of importance they so desperately crave.
Likewise we hope that North Korea can show compassion and empathy for two young women who were simply trying to their jobs, never had any intention of committing any crimes, and certainly have already paid dearly for whatever mistakes they may have accidentally made. These are two women who are no doubt terrified, isolated and no matter what will bear the psychological scars of this incident for the remainder of their lives. Euna is a mother, whose four-year-old daughter now realizes that something has happened to her missing mother. Laura has an ulcer that likely has been exacerbated by the situation in which she finds herself. Their trembling voices haunt their families who have received a single phone call from them (as well as a few letters) during this three-month nightmare.
Petitions, vigils, blogs, tweets, and updates—all of which have been plentiful and powerful in the last few weeks—are important in continuing to spread awareness of Laura and Euna’s situation. But the time for creative diplomacy and real leadership has also come. It was only January that President Obama made history in becoming the first African-American ever to be elected leader of the United States. Along with his pioneering ascension, he bore the weight of great expectations that will now climb to a whole new quantum level as he must bring Laura and Euna home soon. We’ll be watching.Gotham and Mallika Chopra for Intent
Photo courtesy of Intent