In the end, the United States had few options when it came to the matter of the two television reporters who had been arrested and tried as spies for attempting to sneak into North Korea. They were hostages, pure and simple, taken by a nation over which we have almost no leverage because of the unique nature of its monstrous government and that government’s possession of a Sword of Damocles over the head of its prosperous neighbor to the South in the form of a gigantic army and some manner of nuclear weaponry. There was every reason to believe our government’s failure to give North Korea something it wanted would have led to their consignment to an unimaginable living hell. If, in the end, the bribe that secured the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee was the visit of an ex-president and a photo-op of said ex-president with a clearly thrilled Kim Jong-il, that was a decent deal under the circumstances. It is doubtful, however, that Clinton’s visit was all it took; we should get a better sense of it in the days to come, and we should gird ourselves for the news of the deal when it comes.
That said, and now that they are out of jeopardy, Ling and Lee deserve to be held accountable, at least in the realm of public opinion, for the unthinkably bad judgment they displayed in their preposterous, vainglorious, and astoundingly naive venture. Possessing some fantasy about presenting an inside look at North Korea on an justifiably unwatched (because unwatchable) cable channel called Current TV, they thought they could sneak undetected into a Gulag state, film some footage with a DV camera, and then sneak back out to the hosannas of the Peabody Award committee. This is something they chose to do and were given license to attempt by their employers, and for which they paid a horrific, far too horrific, a price. That must be the case as well for Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, the co-owners of Current TV, who have doubtless existed in a state of terrible “what have I done” anxiety about this since the arrests.
But none of them can be simply excused for the way in which their foolishness has exacted a price from the government of the United States, which has been at a loss under administrations Democratic and Republican for more than two decades as to what to do about North Korea and its threat. The interpolation of this melodrama and its resolution have made this nation’s policy toward North Korea even more messy, though that hardly seemed possible, entirely due to a preventable error on the part of two amateurish journalists and their amateurish network.