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
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
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
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
"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
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
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,"
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
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.