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Iran's capture and release of a U.S. journalist gave its nuclear program breathing room. Is North Korea trying the same thing with Ling and Lee?

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Journalist Pawns in the Nuclear Game

Iran’s capture and release of a U.S. journalist gave its nuclear program breathing room. Is North Korea trying the same thing with Ling and Lee?

Convicted June 8 for “hostilities against the Korean people” for crossing into North Korea from China, American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were sentenced to twelve years hard labor.

Whether they actually strayed across China’s border into North Korea or were plucked by “overzealous” (as suggested by some media reports) North Korean guards from Chinese territory is not important. For had Ling and Lee not been where they were — i.e., in the wrong place at the wrong time — some other innocent American or third country citizen would be enduring what they now are.

The arrest of Ling and Lee near the border on March 17 was not the work of “overzealous” North Korean guards. Overzealousness is a trait that has been outlawed in North Korea, and it can get you executed very quickly. These guards acted on a direct order from superiors — as did their superiors in passing the order down. What we will never know is whether the order was specifically to target Americans or whether, as far as Pyongyang was concerned, two Americans were just the luck of the draw.

If the former, absent assistance on the Chinese side of the border by an agent to identify American targets, low-level guards would have been unable to do so. It is clear a lot of thought went into creating this incident. And, it is probably safe to assume, planning discussions did not just take place among Pyongyang’s leadership.

There are two points of interest upon which to focus concerning the convictions of these two reporters — on assignment at the time for former Vice President Gore’s California-based media venture, Current TV, doing a story on the trafficking of North Korean women. The first is intention; the second, timing.

Pyongyang has a long track record of undertaking actions to destabilize relations with the US, South Korea and/or Japan since the Korean War. It has used every possible arrow in its acts of aggressor’s quiver to cause trouble. These arrows have included kidnappings of Japanese students, kidnapping a famous South Korean actress and her producer husband to satisfy North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il’s movie fetish, assassinating a South Korean first lady while attempting to assassinate a president, inserting commando teams via mini-submarines into South Korea as spies, murdering North Korean defectors residing in South Korea, digging invasion tunnels under the DMZ into South Korea, and pretty much everything else they’ve been able to think of.

Interestingly, all of these acts of aggression started with a violation of South Korea’s territorial integrity — something Pyongyang has repeatedly done with armed soldiers but now alleges was done to it by two women armed with cameras.

The timing of the incident is most revealing. The reporters were arrested only weeks before Pyongyang fired a multi-stage missile over Japan. This was followed with North Korea’s detonation of a nuclear device on May 25. Pyongyang knew these events would trigger international criticism and an initiative to impose stricter sanctions against it, spear-headed by the U.S. What better way to give the U.S. pause to reconsider pushing for such sanctions than by having two U.S. citizens in Pyongyang’s back pocket as bargaining chips?

But the North Koreans have been coached by experts who know how to create such international incidents.

There could not be two countries culturally more dissimilar than North Korea and Iran. Yet, they share some common political interests. Both are determined to have a nuclear weapons arsenal and both share, in the U.S., a common enemy. This has driven them to cooperate. Cash-strapped Pyongyang has sold missile and nuclear weapons technology to Tehran. And in Syria, where Damascus was secretly building a nuclear weapons facility before it was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in September 2007, Iran appears to have funded the venture. The two countries pay close attention to the best course to navigate to develop nuclear weapons while circumventing various “shoals” placed there by those trying to stop them. What works successfully for one country becomes a lesson learned for the other.

Tehran taught Pyongyang how to distract the focus of the U.S. and its allies from pressing for discontinuance of a nuclear weapons program. It was when Iran’s nuclear program had fallen under the international microscope again in 2006/2007 that it opted to create an international incident. In March 2007, 15 British sailors and marines in a small boat operating in Iraqis waters were seized by the Iranian navy.Tehran claimed the Brits were guilty of “blatant aggression” by entering its territorial waters, despite GPS coordinates provided by the Iranians which plotted in Iraqi waters as well. (Claiming the original coordinates they gave were wrong, the Iranians submitted a second set which, unsurprisingly, then plotted into Iranian waters.)

The fifteen Brits were held for a number of days before being released. But, as was Tehran’s intention, this act of aggression distracted attention from the pressures being applied by the U.S. and its allies for Iran to terminate its nuclear program. With the release of the Brits, an international sigh of relief was heard as Iran continued to move forward with its nuclear weapons program. A similar effort was undertaken again by Tehran when it convicted a U.S. journalist, Roxana Saberi, on assignment in Iran, allegedly for spying, sentencing her to eight years in prison, before then releasing her. Her release also gave Iran’s nuclear program additional breathing room. Undoubtedly, Tehran has encouraged Pyongyang to take a similar tact.

The only question remaining is how long the two reporters will remain in North Korea before being released. That will be determined by how many more missile firings Pyongyang has planned. Since indications are Pyongyang is preparing another barrage of missiles firings off its east coast, the journalists may be looking at weeks or months of captivity, possibly including actual time in a camp, before being released.

We must understand the following about North Korea:

First, it most likely will not seek to use nuclear weapons against another country.

Second, it will almost certainly seek to sell such weapons to any other country or any terrorist group that will meet its price.

Third, the thing of least concern to Pyongyang is its image in the world community.

Fourth, the missile firings and nuclear detonation we have been witnessing is Pyongyang’s effort to market its technology to potential buyers.

Fifth, any act of provocation it can undertake to get the US to take its eye off the ball — such as sentencing U.S. citizens to prison on trumped up charges — is part of the effort to build their nuclear arsenal by distracting critics.

Unfortunately, for Ling and Lee, they are pawns in North Korea’s chess match with the U.S.

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Written By

Lieutenant Colonel James Zumwalt is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the 1989 intervention into Panama and Desert Storm. An author, speaker and business executive, he also currently heads a security consulting firm named after his father -- Admiral Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc. He has also been cited in numerous other books and publications for unique insights based on his research on the Vietnam war, North Korea (a country he has visited ten times and about which he is able to share some very telling observations) and Desert Storm.

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