Alexander Cockburn on North Korea

Laura Ling and Euna Lee’s treatment has parallels with the fate of the Cuban Five in the USA, says Alexander Cockburn

By Alexander Cockburn


Was there ever a failed state as barbaric as North Korea? Not only is this ‘rogue nation’ endangering the security of the planet in its efforts to elbow its way into the exclusive club of nuclear powers, it has now dispatched two Chinese-American journalists for 12-year prison terms in one of its labour camps, notorious for their brutality and appalling conditions.

The women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, work for a TV channel owned by former Vice-President Al Gore. According to their friends, the two crossed North Korea’s border with China, intent on investigating the alleged trafficking of North Korean women as sex slaves in the People’s Republic. Leaving aside the obvious fact that the fates and harsh sentences faced by Ling and Lee are tied up in the evolution of relations between North Korea and the new Obama government, let’s try to achieve some sense of balance on the charge of barbarism.

Many people couldn’t take it. You could see them start to lose their minds Let’s turn to a country that has endured half a century of continuous attack by terrorists based in the United States, suffering nearly 4,000 dead and 2,000 wounded – namely Cuba. Facing the sabotage of its budding tourist industry, including the bombing of hotels and the murder of tourists, Cuba sent investigators to the US to infiltrate the terrorists, and then handed the results of their probe to the FBI. The investigators I’m talking about are the Cuban Five – courageous men who travelled from Havana to southern Florida in order to penetrate the Miami-based gangs, specifically Alpha 66, the F4 Commandos, the Cuban American National Foundation and Brothers to the Rescue. In 1998, after Fidel Castro dispatched Gabriel Garcia Marquez as an emissary to the Clinton White House, the United States sent an FBI team to Havana to discuss the attacks. Cuba handed over to the FBI their investigators’ 64 files on 31 different terrorist acts and plans against the island in the decade of the 1990s. Cuba expected the FBI to start arresting the terrorists. Instead, on September 12, 1998, the Bureau arrested the very investigators who had come to Miami to probe the activities of the Miami terrorists. Gerardo Hernandez received a double life sentence and Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labanino received life sentences. The remaining two, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez, received 19 and 15 years respectively.

It’s true that the Five weren’t sent to a labour camp akin to those in the North Korean gulag. Where they were sent was described earlier this year on the CounterPunch site by Hernandez in an interview with the film-maker Saul Landau, who is making a documentary about the Cuban 5.
Hernandez: “They took us to the prison, the Center of Federal Detention in Miami and put us in ‘the hole’.”
Landau: “For how long?”
Hernandez: “Seveteen months. You’re in the cell 23 hours a day. And one hour a day of recreation where they take you to another place. In Miami it was a bit bigger and with this grid through which you could see a little piece of the sky. You could tell if it was day or night. There we were 23, sometimes 24, hours a day, inside those four small walls, with nothing to do. It’s very difficult from a humane point of view. And many people couldn’t take it. You could see them start to lose their minds, start screaming.”

Having set North Korea’s barbarity in a larger perspective, let us turn to the dangers its testing programme and intermittent detonations pose to world security. On May 25, North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test, two-and-a-half years after its first. Obama promptly denounced it as “a grave threat to the peace and stability of the world”. He added that North Korea’s actions had “flown in the face of United Nations resolutions” and were inviting deeper international isolation. Almost four months earlier, Obama had nothing to say when, on February 3 or 4, two nuclear-powered submarines, one British, one French, each carrying nuclear missiles, collided in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Unlike the North Koreans, who immediately reported their test to the world, Britain and France said nothing. Neither did the United States. The three Nato powers hoped that this indubitable threat to world safety would remain a secret. On February 16, the Sun was the first paper to disclose the crash. Then, and only then, an anonymous British official said the submarine Vanguard’s “deterrent capability remained unaffected and there was no compromise to nuclear safety”. The question of what either sub was supposed to be deterring was not addressed.

France’s Defence Ministry said in a brief statement on February 6 that the sub Le Triomphant had struck “a submerged object (probably a container)” during a return from a patrol, damaging the sonar dome on the front of the submarine. The Ministry did not confirm the date of the collision, and didn’t mention the British sub.The Vanguard limped back to home port, considerably dented, according to observers. Le Triomphant, blind because of the damage to its sonar dome, was escorted by a frigate back to its base on France’s west coast. There is no reason to believe a single word of either the British or French governments’ accounts of the crash.

Sarkozy’s first speech on ‘defence’ after he became president came with the dedication of Le Triomphant’s sister sub, Le Terrible, and a threat to nuke Iran. Tony Blair closed out his decade as prime minister by announcing a new series of nuclear subs to carry the Trident nukes. He singled out North Korea for specific mention.”No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons,” Obama declared piously in Cairo, even as he told Iran that “when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point” and as his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, went on ABC TV to talk murkily about “consequences and costs” if Iran developed nuclear weapons, and then stumbled through a hypothesis about a US attack, even “a first strike”.

And they call North Korea a rogue nation?