Americans in Pyongyang: Detainees, Prisoners, Hostages, and Pawns

An exquisitely rendered photograph of an American apology to the DPRK from 1968 and the USS Pueblo Incident, part of a new exhibition in Pyongyang glorifying the "Songun leadership" of the young Kim Jong-il. Image via Chosun Central Television.
An exquisitely rendered photograph of an American apology to the DPRK from 1968 and the USS Pueblo Incident, part of a new exhibition in Pyongyang intended to glorify the “Songun leadership” of the young Kim Jong-il and drive home the propensity of the United States to relinquish all dignity in its militarized and espionage-heavy dealings with North Korea. Image via Chosun Central Television.

Yesterday, North Korea gave the US media momentary access to three American nationals currently detained in the DPRK. Finding the right terms to capture what function these three unfortunate men are serving at the moment is tricky at the moment. For convenience, let’s just start with nouns: “Detainee” is probably the most neutral designation, though for certain intrepid lawyers even this language has been tainted by post-9/11 practices and the erosion of habeus corpus at home. So we are hamstrung, and left with other choices of noun to describe the three Americans: “hostages” (much to be said for this designation), “prisoners” (though this is not true in the conventional sense of “inmates of a prison,” unless one’s definition of that term is stretched to include those who are unable to leave a North Korean hotel), or “well-coached, likely terrified and pliant Americans serving the opaque goals of North Korean foreign policy” (a bit on the long side, and hardly kind).

Since North Korea keeps minute surveillance on the foreigners within its sovereign boundaries and has the kind of legal system that can carry out a trial and levy a death sentence on someone like Jang Song-taek so quickly that it evokes the Chinese phrase”先判后审” (first the verdict, then the trial), for the sake of simplicity, let’s go with “hostages.”

You have to feel bad for the journalists sent to run this particular errand as well; they’re put in an awful predicament whereby to simply tell the North Koreans “no, we refuse to give you the publicity and amplification you so clearly are demanding” means to turn down what amounts to a major story that might actually justify one’s presence (and the bureau’s expenditure) in a country where all of one’s competitors are trying to figure out how to turn their state-guided tour of a water park and equestrian facility into some kind of compelling narrative about dictatorship.

Far more useful would be more putting of this story into a historical context which might include this, this (and this), and this, although the Wall Street Journal‘s quick analysis and links to the full interview footage is also not bad.

You might also take this little sign as indicating that the CNN “interviews” with the hostages were being actively guided and the specific questions prompted by North Korean officials, even though the Associated Press insists that its subsequent meetings with the men featured “uncensored questions.” While the AP can boast that it is the only American news agency with a bureau in Pyongyang, the fact that the North Koreans effectively gave the scoop to greenhorn CNN reporters indicates that whomever controls North Korea’s international media strategy is well above any feelings of sentimentality.* Unless, of course, CNN is here being rewarded for past “good behavior,” i.e., having been pliant in 2009 when it facilitated Pyongyang’s orchestration of a nearly-identical scenario that led to the dispatch of former President Bill Clinton to the DPRK — as documented in two books that did extremely well with people who want their information about North Korea to be endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. In other words, we have been in this nasty little situation before.

Incidentally, I was supposed to have been in the DPRK port cities of Rajin-Sonbong (Rason) yesterday with a delegation from the European Parliament, but I had to cancel my participation in the trip. After yesterday’s distasteful spectacle, and having actually read the US State Department’s updated travel warning to North Korea (which is far more strenuous than it used to be, and highly recommended for readers of any nationality), I can’t say I regret the decision.

[* In a 6 September tweet, AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief noted: “Just for the record, the latest interview i did of the two Americans detained in North Korea was the third for AP.” — 21 September, 2014]

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