Early this morning (Hong Kong time), I was interviewed on CNN International (here’s the video) about the consequences of recent rescues of American citizens sentenced to long prison terms in some of the world’s worst countries—specifically, former president Bill Clinton’s mission to North Korea on August 5 to bring out journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, and Senator Jim Webb’s trip to Burma over the weekend to extract John William Yettaw.

Ling and Lee had begun 12-year terms at hard labor (though the labor had not started yet when Clinton arrived) for crossing into North Korea, and Yettaw, a strange person, had begun a seven-year term for swimming out to the residence of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party won the elections of 1990, which would, under normal circumstances, have made her prime minister. Instead, the junta nullified the vote, and she has been under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.

The moderator wanted to know the effects of these “ad hoc” rescue activities—her phrase, not mine.

Certainly, it’s a proper function of government to protect Americans being abused, held hostage, or wrongly incarcerated in foreign countries. But we should also beware of the risks of such actions—one of which is to put our citizens abroad in greater peril in the future from irresponsible governments that want to take hostages and gain advantages themselves. The main reason the U.S. government does not pay ransom to spring hostages is that such payments encourage more hostage-taking. 

There’s no doubt that in the recent cases irresponsible governments did gain advantages. Kim Jong-il, the North Korean dictator, got his picture taken with Bill Clinton after years of being shunned and dissed by U.S. leaders. Yes, Clinton was on a “private” mission, but that’s a nuance of American law—lost not only on the North Koreans but also on others they want to impress. Clinton is the husband of the secretary of state and himself a former president who served two terms. Similarly, Burma’s leaders got an audience with a U.S. senator (good piece here from the Christian Science Monitor). Webb, to his credit, must have insisted on seeing The Lady, too (as she is called), because he also spent time with her.

So there’s the risk, for example, that Iran will have even more incentive to grab and hold Americans, like those three hikers who crossed its border a few weeks ago. Iran is also trying an Iranian-American scholar, as well as Maziar Bahari, a highly regarded Newsweek reporter, in the Stalinist “show trials” going on right now in Tehran.

But the moderator was wrong to call the Clinton and Webb missions “ad hoc.” They are part of an Obama-administration policy that may be even more dangerous than the moral-hazard-style risks that have been incurred. The White House wants to “engage” hostile regimes, and it apparently sees episodes like the ones in North Korea and Burma as opportunities to open up dialogues and perhaps effect a talking cure. Former president Clinton, for example, is said to have had “exhaustive” talks with Kim.

About this approach, it is right to be skeptical. Our differences with North Korea are profound, and it is hard to see how engagement alone can cure them. As John Bolton, former ambassador to the United Nations, has said several times, including here at Stanford: “Diplomacy is not a policy. Diplomacy is a tool.”

I was intrigued by a piece about North Korea policy by Nick Eberstadt in the Asian Wall Street Journal in June. He first laid down the premise that Kim is not going to be talked out of what we see as the “nuclear problem.” In fact, Dear Leader wants to make that problem much bigger. Eberstadt, an American Enterprise Institute scholar, argues, “The only way forward is a fundamental paradigm shift in dealings with Pyongyang: The goal of the United States and its partners should not be a negotiation breakthrough but rather a threat reduction.” He then goes into specifics.

What I do know is that it makes me queasy to think that while we are rescuing our own, we are neglecting—and not even talking about—those not so fortunate.

The forced-labor camps in North Korea are an abomination. It is reliably estimated that there are about 200,000 prisoners—many of them family members of those accused of political crimes. Many of them work 12 to 15 hours a day in coal, gypsum, and limestone mines and sustain themselves on scant rations of corn. The terrors are detailed in a remarkable book by Kang Chol-Hwan, who as a 9-year-old was sent to the camps, along with his entire family, because his grandfather was alleged to have been unreliable by the regime. Kang remained for 10 years, was released, then escaped to the South, where he is now a journalist. His story is told in a book called The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag.

A comprehensive piece on the camps by Blaine Harden, an excellent reporter, appeared last month in the Washington Post, headlined “N. Korea’s Hard-Labor Camps: On the Diplomatic Back Burner.” Harden recounts harrowing tales of prisoners being forced to sit within 15 feet of fellow prisoners being executed, with pebbles stuffed in their mouths. Kang tells of prisoners working in 13-below-zero weather dressed in rags, prisoners hunting for rats and insects to eat, living in rags, and dying miserably of disease. One soccer star on the North Korean team that lost a key match with Portugal had been in the camps for 20 years when Kang left.

These camps remind us of Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag, but the difference is that the North Korean camps have been operating now for more than 50 years (you can view Yodok and the other camps on Google Earth).

In June 2005, Kang visited President Bush in the Oval Office, and the two talked for 40 minutes. At the time, Kang despaired that no one was paying attention to what was happening in the North Korean camps. “I now realize,” he writes, “that the Lord wanted to use President Bush to let the blind world see what is happening to His people in North Korea. . . . The bleak reality, in which nearly no one cared about the ghosts of three million famished souls and hundreds of thousands more in the concentration camps in my home country, was instantly changed.”

Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. George W. Bush did a great deal for dissidents like Kang. Today, however, we have rescuers for the few, but little concern for the fate of the many—in North Korea, Iran, and Burma, to name the nations at hand. Where, for example, is Washington’s condemnation of the show trials? What are we doing—besides the superb work of Voice of America’s Persian News Network and Radio Free Europe’s Radio Farda—to help peaceful, freedom-desiring Iranians communicate with the outside world and to help the outside world give them moral, if not material, support?

I understand very well that foreign policy sometimes requires compromise with bad regimes. I understand realism. But I also understand that diplomacy—certainly public diplomacy—requires not just missions of mercy but outrage and compassion founded on principle as well.

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