Axis of brinkmanship

What relief the two US journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who had been facing 12 years imprisonment with hard labour, must be feeling after their sudden and dramatic ‘rescue’ by Bill Clinton.

The two have been used as pawns by the North Korean government in a frightening game of testing what the international community might do on the nuclear issue when these two women were held prisoner. The photos give nothing away as to the tone of the talks that have brought about the release.

Great relief then for them and their families.

But not for the thousands of remaining prisoners in North Korea who are serving hard labour sentences. They endure physically demanding work including mountain logging and stone quarrying, often for ten hours or more per day, with no rest days. Guards beat prisoners suspected of lying, not working fast enough or for forgetting the words to patriotic songs. Prisoners in North Korea are known to fall ill or even die in custody due to the combination of forced hard labour, inadequate food, beatings, lack of medical care and unhygienic living conditions.

No relief either for the millions in North Korea facing severe food shortages as their government refuses to seek international assistance. Nor for those on death row facing execution by hanging or firing squad. Full rundown on human rights in North Korea here.

In November last year the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution expressing grave doubts about human rights violations in the country. It is likely that the government of Kim Jong-il simply perceives this as part of the ‘game’. The international community needs to make it very explicit to North Korea that the protection of human rights, whether of individual journalists or of all those living in the ‘Democratic Republic’, is a basic condition to be met before negotiations can proceed, not a negotiable item.

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