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     Jun 11, 2009
Journalists may get 'good' gulag
By Donald Kirk

WASHINGTON - The term "hard labor" when applied by a North Korean court to the 12-year sentences meted out to journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee is hardly the same as the "hard labor" given to hundreds of thousands of prisoners scattered through a vast gulag system from which there is generally no escape and no reprieve, according to a range of experts.

The kind of existence that awaits Ling and Lee as they begin their detention is not at all clear, but no one believes they will really have to suffer through dawn-to-dusk days slaving in fields and mines, beaten by guards and sometimes tortured, as routinely happens to prisoners in North Korea.

For example, if they did survive all that and were eventually


released, consider the tremendous story they would be able to tell about life inside North Korea's infamous gulag system.

"When they get out, the North Koreans don't want these journalists describing those harsh conditions," said Tim Peters, missionary and crusader on behalf of defectors from North Korea. The North Koreans, said Peters, "will handle them rather skillfully and try to weave their experience into this whole propaganda machine".

Kim Sang-hun, a long-time human-rights activist in South Korea, believes the "hard labor" in this case refers to terms in a labor reform institute - quite a different institution from the sprawling prisons spread out over remote regions of the country. The regimen will be lighter, and the women, whenever they get to go home, may be able to say that at least they were treated reasonably by international standards.

No one knows exactly what they will do, but experts believe the possibilities range from teaching English to advising on some of the technicalities of television broadcasting to editing the Korea Central News Agency's English-language service to spending endless hours at machines fabricating handicraft items.

Whatever they wind up doing, Choi Won-ki, a journalist who has spent years analyzing North Korean propaganda, believes they'll live in relative comfort, at least by North Korean standards. "I'm positive they will stay in a state guest house," said Choi. Choi acknowledged that possibly they will be moved from the guest house, operated by the state security system, to which they have been confined ever since North Korean soldiers picked them up on the Tumen River border with China on March 17 as they were working on a story about human-rights abuses.

"From a five-star hotel, maybe they will move to a one or two-star hotel," said Choi. "They will not go to a labor camp."

All that's assuming that the United States goes on working behind the scenes for their release while the families of the two women continue to make impassioned appeals for mercy. In the end, North Korea expects all the emotions generated in an international campaign on their behalf will translate into significant concessions.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday again offered assurances that the US would not forget the two women even as she sought to distinguish between their case and US efforts to get the United Nations Security Council to impose new sanctions on North Korea as punishment for the nuclear test of May 25.

"We're going to continue to pursue every possible avenue," said Clinton, seizing on a press conference with a visiting Mongolian official to focus on the case as a humanitarian issue. She did not say just what the US government was doing but wanted it known "we are working, as I said yesterday, in every way open to us to persuade the North Korean government to release the two journalists".

It is still possible to imagine a scenario in which secret negotiations totally break down while the region plunges more deeply into confrontation over North Korea's weapons of mass destruction and the missiles with which to fire them to distant targets. An outbreak of hostilities over the boarding of North Korean ships in search of such cargo, could diminish the chances for an early release of the women - and possibly the good treatment they are expected to receive.

Larry Niksch, senior analyst for the Congressional Research Service, warned of such an eventuality "if a deal is not made" for their release. "The North Koreans then may send them to a concentration camp, and they could disappear," said Niksch.

Niksch said the North Koreans could try to exploit their knowledge of American mass communications. "Another idea is they will say, 'We will give you better treatment if you work for us,'" said Niksch.

Such treatment would be typical in a system in which four American soldiers who defected to North Korea in the 1960s wound up as teachers of English. Japanese kidnapped from Japan in the late 1970s and early 1980s became Japanese teachers.

No foreigner has witnessed first hand a system in which Amnesty International has said that "political prisoners reportedly suffered appalling conditions, in a wide range of detention centers and prisons".

In some of the most extensive studies of the North Korean gulag system, David Hawk, on the basis of interviews with defectors, described "an extremely brutal gulag of sprawling political labor colonies" as well as "an extremely brutal system of imprisonment, interrogation, torture and forced labor".

Prisoners, Hawk wrote, are consigned to life sentences "in mining, timber-cutting or farming enterprises" with no right of trial, much less appeal. According to Hawk, such inmates exist "under brutal conditions in permanent situations of deliberately contrived semi-starvation" in which public executions, torture and beatings are routine.

Such horrors, though, are presumably not in North Korea's game plan for the women. Still, they will likely go through many hard times as they await the results of distant negotiations.

"There are a lot of horror stories," said Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Foundation in Washington. "The notion of 12 years in a labor camp is very daunting and very horrific, but my guess is they wouldn't be sent precipitously" to a labor camp.

Experts believe that North Korean strategists will have no problem ignoring an impassioned chorus of pleas from members of the women's families.

"They're holding them as hostages," said Nick Eberstadt, senior scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Nobody, he noted, had considered appending their case to the UN Security Council resolution on sanctions. "They may be prepared to hold them for a long time," he said.

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.

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