Sometime in the next four days, North Korea intends to launch a "satellite" into orbit. The international community is skeptical, and the consensus is that the launch will instead be a test of a long-range ballistic missile. The American response has been muted, though, since the North Korean government last week arrested two journalists. Euna Lee and Laura Ling, correspondents for Nobel Peace Prize recipient Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV network, are being detained at an undisclosed location for unlawfully crossing the border. These arrests are more than a violation of international codes for treatment of journalists: they amount to the taking of hostages as leverage for conducting the missile test.
Some background: North Korea is a one-party military dictatorship under the guise of a democratic socialist republic. Founded by Kim Il-Sung (father of current dictator Kim Jong Il), the East Asian nation has spurned attempts at negotiation from the international community, although it relies heavily on outside aid to keep its population alive. After pouring much of the country's precious resources into a nuclear program, North Korea is estimated to possess approximately seven plutonium and an unknown number of uranium bombs. But having a bomb is not the same as using a bomb; Use against the United States would require ballistic missiles capable of crossing 13 time zones. It is a missile of this type that many suspect Korea is trying to test.
Meanwhile, the issue is causing a political storm in Japan. After Korea's 1998 test crashed in the ocean off the Japanese coast - after flying over several population centers - the government decided that it would prepare to respond to future tests. The US has sent three destroyers to the Sea of Japan to collect data on the missile launch. Some observers have speculated that American technology will allow our government to learn more from the test than North Korea itself does. But this is not the issue: Clearly the Korean government is determined to carry out the test. It is common sense that we cannot convince Kim Jong Il to change his mind by way of feeble protests. The problem that the rest of the world now has to consider is how to put its foot down without endangering the safety of the journalists.
North Korea has the world's 47th largest population, but it has the 4th largest standing army: 1.2 million men. It relies heavily on food aid, with South Korea and China providing over a million tons per year. Before Bush ended our large-scale aid, America provided nearly 700,000 tons per year. Heavily subsidized oil is provided from China, though the nation has abundant coal reserves. Organized suspension of food aid would be terribly politically destabilizing - not to mention morally abhorrent - the rest of the world does have some degree of leverage insofar as North Korea cannot survive at market prices.
As I write these words, Barack Obama is in Europe working on the economic crisis, but a grave security threat is a ticking time bomb in the East. Now is the time for him to establish a precedent that such tests are unacceptable, making American policy clear in preparation for similar tests that will surely come in the following year or two from Iran. Korean officials taunt us, as Rachel Maddow pointed out yesterday, by quoting back at us Bush-era quotes and policy decisions justifying torture, unlawful detention, violation of habeas corpus, and other crimes. When we ask about the welfare of the prisoners, they quote back our policy on waterboarding. Naturally, the journalistic community is furious: Not only that North Korea would do this but that the United States government has justified the same policies. It's nice to hear that "the United States does not torture," but but if they are not meaningful words backed up by meaningful action, they are false and endanger American citizens around the world.
If torture is a crime, its perpetrators are criminals. Bringing to justice John Yoo, Donald Rumsfeld, and others who violated international law is a good first step, but it is only a first step. Next we must give fair, speedy, and public trials to each and every detainee in Guantánamo, and provide them with the same rights afforded anyone else tried under our Constitution. Congress must issue a formal declaration of apology for war crimes committed in our secret prisons. Obama should offer to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il without preconditions. This is needed to negotiate release for the prisoners and cancellation of the "satellite" launch. And despite our need for leverage, we must find a way to exert pressure without withholding food. This not just our only moral alternative, it is the only way we can re-establish our reputation and protect our citizens. Soon, I hope, we will extricate ourselves from the paralysis of our own policies turned against us.
Until then, we are all North Korea's hostages.