Thursday, March 25, 2010

I respond to Lisa Ling

Note to readers: The following is my response to a letter Lisa Ling wrote me, which she allowed to put up as a post (found here). [UPDATE (May 18, 2010): Comments are open at this "final" post in our correspondence.]

Before I begin, I want to again thank you for allowing me to address your privately sent remarks in a public forum (and wish I hadn't taken a whole month to do so). I appreciate the respect you have shown for my viewpoint, and I hope you will feel that I have been respectful of yours. Though we may disagree on some important points, we are ultimately on the same side in that we both look at the DPRK regime as an ongoing atrocity and humanitarian nightmare. Your words have given me food for thought, causing me to rethink the way I approached some things, but also strengthen other opinions. I will try to address those points respectfully over the next several paragraphs.

Up front, I would like to apologize in advance for the paragraph-by-paragraph format in which I address the points of your letter, a style often referred to as "fisking," and one which many people find a bit daunting. I had thought about simply writing an essay in response to your email, but the points you made covered a wide range of topics and I did not want to miss anything.

Finally, before I get to the meat of the sandwich, one thing I do feel a need to apologize for is if the harsh terms I have used in discussing the issues related to this case and the participants. I won't list them here, just in case you haven't seen them all, but I admit they were not nice, and they weren't necessarily things I would likely have said in a face-to-face meeting with any of the subjects involved. I've worked in media long enough to know that there is a disconnect among many members of the general public when it comes to celebrities or others in the news: Their privacy is stripped away and/or harsh opinions are freely stated about them as if they are not real people and are therefore devoid of feelings. Last winter I was swimming against the current, public opinion-wise, and I deliberately chose such terms to express my dismay at what I strongly felt were inaccurate interpretations of what was going on.

But you and your sister, Euna Lee, and Mitch Koss are all real people with real feelings, with loved ones who were no doubt extremely distressed about the well-being and fate of those three. The last thing those loved ones would need to see is my remarks about where they screwed up, but at the same time I doubt any of them were googling "criticisms of Euna, Laura, and Mitch."

Nevertheless, if my words caused them any further anxiety in their time of distress, I am genuinely sorry. To some extent, I feel that my tone was necessary and just, as I will explain below, but I did not mean to be hurtful to any of their loved ones. I, too, am guilty sometimes of hypocritical treatment of those in the public eye, and your letter reminded me of that, and it was something I thought I should address before I began, especially since some of my points below require me to quote or link to posts from the past eleven months that contain some of those same harsh words.

Having said all that, here I go. From your letter:
Saw your latest blog and though you have very right to write what you please, I just thought I would give you a bit of context from our side so that you have it.

First of all, though I am a co-author on Somewhere Inside, I am not making a penny from the book sales whatsoever. I am donating my entire portion to LiNK, CPJ and RSF.
From even before any book deal for anybody was ever announced, I publicly stated my opposition to any attempt for people to make money off of actions such as these. In March 2009, not long after they were detained, I wrote in not so diplomatic terms: "I personally will launch a boycott of said book, because I think it is wrong, wrong, wrong to let willful idiots capitalize on their stupidity that has put others at risk."

I wrote that because I feel that your sister and her team's "mistake" may have actually cost lives (more on that below), and I am certainly not alone in this opinion. Their foolishness in willfully crossing over into North Korea while carrying incriminating videotapes of the unobscured faces of the North Korean refugees hiding in China whom they interviewed, borders on the criminal. It boggles the mind that anyone would do such a thing. We can reasonably imagine (and I believe it has been reported) that the materials caught on the persons of your sister, Euna Lee, and Mitch Koss were used to track those refugees down and deport them back to North Korea, where they would be imprisoned, tortured, and then executed or left to die in the North Korean gulag.

Yet we saw too little contrition from Laura and Euna. Near zero, in fact. Instead we saw excuse-making, like they only touched North Korean territory very, very briefly. What we needed to see was an accounting of the mistakes and their consequences, but that hasn't happened. Even in your email to me, you offer a rationalization that some good came out of this.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. What I want to focus on here is the idea of penance and profit. No one in this situation whose acts of foolishness cost the liberty or life of any North Korean refugee should profit in any way, shape, or form from this. No one should make a buck off this situation that likely had tragic consequences for innocent people.

Toward that end, I'm very encouraged by your statement that you are donating your entire portion to Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF). These are worthy organizations who deserve our support, and LiNK does a tremendous amount of good work helping the kind of people who I believe were put in grave danger by the foolish acts of your sister, Mitch Koss, and Euna Lee.

But I note in your email that you mention nothing of what your sister will do with her portion. I don't know if that omission is because you don't speak for her so you can't also inform me that she, too, will donate all of her share to a deserving charity that can help the people who were put in harm's way by her acts, or if in fact she plans to keep her portion.

Yes, I recognize that writing books takes time and money, but if a book must be written, then that time, effort, and money should be chalked up to the cost of doing penance. Indeed, this is a small price to pay compared to the damage that was done (more on that later).

So for me it comes down to this: If your sister is also giving up her portion to a group like LiNK, then I would have a complete change of heart about this issue, and I would proudly retract my "don't buy this book" admonition. Ditto with Euna Lee and her book (and please don't tell me Mitch Koss has a book deal or will profit from this in any way).

I would still like to see more contrition and taking responsibility for the consequences that likely occurred, and I hold out the possibility that that might actually be in the book.

You also wrote:
While my sister and her team made a mistake by setting foot onto NK soil, they were used as political bargaining tools by the North Korea government.
Calling it a mistake is a gross understatement, and that grave error is compounded by a lack of public acknowledgement of the consequences for their stupid and arrogant actions. As a distraught family member, you would naturally focus on the harrowing prospect of not seeing your sister safe and sound again, or of her being tormented by her experiences long after her release.

But their "mistake" went beyond that. I keep driving this point home because it is so important for people to understand and acknowledge: In a very detrimental way they affected the lives of others who trusted your sister and her team, they effectively demonstrated where the DPRK authorities should plug up a part of their porous border that could be used for escape from North Korea, and they compromised the position of the United States by the government being put in a predicament where, essentially, it had no choice but to go fish out two of its citizens. None of this can be brushed off by merely acknowledging "a mistake" or with excuses that they planned to be in North Korea only for a moment.

They should have known better. They should have expected that if they were caught — and it is reasonable to think you might get caught when you enter another country illegally — that they would be placing refugees-in-hiding in harm's way and they themselves would be used as bargaining chips for the DPRK regime. Brushing this off as "a mistake" does not mitigate the actions of your sister and her team; it underscores the foolishness of those actions even further.
Since their return and President Clinton's visit, there have been a lot of positive movements. The North Koreans released the Hyundai worker as well as the South Korean fishermen they had been holding not to mention Robert Park after 2 months of detention.

North Korea also allowed Steven Bosworth into the country and a top level NK diplomat is scheduled to visit the U.S. next month to discuss nuclear disarmament.
I see two things wrong with this line of thinking. First, I think it is again trying to mitigate the severity of the consequences left in the wake of their criminal foolishness by trying to find a silver lining, almost as if this was an intended outcome. Second, I simply do not agree with that this silver lining actually exists. Perhaps I am overly pessimistic, but I don't think Pyongyang really responds to gestures of niceness in the way you seem to suggest; the leadership has a cold, hard calculus for staying in power and getting what it wants to stay in power.

Indeed, as one can easily discern from sites like One Free Korea, North Korea's "positive movements" are little more than calculated kabuki. Your sister and Euna's release did not effect any of the things you mentioned, except to the extent that Pyongyang was reminded that hemming and hawing about releasing Americans is a good way to get cash or concessions from Washington.

The only hope I have about former President Clinton's visit to Pyongyang to spirit your sister and Euna Lee out of North Korea is that the only thing our side gave up is a photo-op of a stoic President Bill Clinton so that Kim Jong-il's myth-makers can claim to those under his thumb that Juche's Mohammed can make the mountain come to him. I sincerely hope that nothing more was offered in the form of promises of aid, movement toward diplomatic ties, or keeping North Korea off the list of terror-sponsoring countries, all carrots that President Obama or a future US leader may need to use for something more substantial in the sanctions-and-rewards approach he seems to be taking.

[And this criticism extends to Robert Park also, a man who just as foolishly went into North Korea saying he didn't want any help getting out, but may have gotten it anyway, to the detriment of American policy. I dare say we might also see it play out with his fellow traipser, Aijalon Mahli Gomes.]
How you can say that we have blood on our hands is so upsetting. Talk to the people at LiNK and ask them if they have noticed an improvement in the tone coming out of North Korea since my sister and Euna's return.
Setting aside for a moment that I don't think the improved tone is anything more than an act we've already seen played out in the past, I will grant that the phrasing "blood on their hands" may have been somewhat excessive and, if taken personally, perhaps hurtful. This goes to what I said at the beginning of my response.

But even if I strip away the rhetorical hyperbole, the fact remains that, as I've mentioned repeatedly, your sister and her team's actions likely resulted in the capture, imprisonment, torture, and/or death of a number of people. That can't be erased; it must be acknowledged.

However, I will concede that I have misspoken insofar as applying that phrase to you, and for that I apologize. While I've spilled a lot of ink talking about the detrimental outcome of what your sister and her team did, it was an action you yourself had nothing to do with.

The one thing you were directly responsible for that has long made me uncomfortable, however, was your decision to use a medical NGO, posing as part of their medical team, as cover to gain access to North Korea. Granted, the topic is an important one, but I wonder how many such NGOs will have been denied access in the future thanks to that cover once it was inevitably revealed, thus adding to the suffering of those in need. I must admit that I had that thought in the back of my mind, but I agree that even if I'm right about any resulting crackdown on such NGOs, it doesn't warrant applying the phrase "blood on their hands" to you.

But I do wonder how you would answer such criticism. Did you feel you would be impeding other medical-related NGOs in the future once your actual activities were revealed (when the documentary was released)? Did you consider using a different form of cover that wouldn't leave such NGOs vulnerable? Did you weigh the costs (to people who wouldn't be able to benefit from such NGOs) against the benefits (drawing attention to North Korean society)? As someone who has been involved in news media and in public health, perhaps I'm more keenly aware of, or at least more concerned about, the long-term dangers of using a health-related team for an ulterior purpose.
I am deeply proud of my sister and believe that her story will provoke people to think differently about what can happen when human beings get the opportunity to interact with one another despite that fact that their countries may consider each another enemies.
I'm not entirely sure I understand what your intention is with the above sentence. Are you suggesting that there is good that came from the interaction between two Americans, your sister and Euna Lee, and their North Korean captors and jailers? I recall that your sister said some personal connection was made with those who watched over her during her time in captivity (reportedly a routine tactic used by the North Koreans). If that is the case, I question how valuable such limited interaction really would be in the long run and submit that this, too, sounds like grasping for a silver lining to mitigate the damage that was done by your sister's and her team's actions.

Please don't misunderstand me: as a long-time resident of South Korea, I have come to believe that cross-DMZ contact is crucial to eroding mutual hatred and re-humanizing the enemy (as long as it doesn't come with a hefty price tag demanded by Pyongyang). And insofar as some people may see all citizens of the DPRK, not just the regime, as an enemy then I think it's important for the Western media to depict everyday North Koreans in more human terms. And similarly, showing the North Koreans that South Koreans, Americans, and others are not horned devils is also important.

But again, the handful of interpersonal relationships your sister or Euna Lee may have forged while in custody cannot even begin to make up for the mountain of folly brought by your sister and her team's recklessness. Indeed, to not put too fine a point on it, it is an irrelevant distraction from the real issue of the consequences of their actions.
Thank you for using your voice. You are a very passionate person and I admire that. Know that my intentions have never been about self-aggrandizement. I have been lucky that God bestowed a path for me that I take very seriously, and that is for telling stories. I realize that there will be many who will be unhappy with some of the things I tell, but I feel compelled to tell them nonetheless.
I have no choice but take your word for it that none of your actions or your sister's actions were about financial or professional aggrandizement, though please be aware that that's a tough sell for a skeptical public. Whenever someone writes a book following a tragedy or trauma, the public can't help but feel that enhancement of wealth or status is at work. But given your assurance that you will not earn a dime from this book, I'm more inclined to accept your self-assessment. If your sister also publicly states she'll do the same, I'd be inclined to take her word for that, too.

I have worked in media and with media personalities, whom I could divide into roughly two groups: those who do this labor of love because it's important, and those who do it because they want the fame, fortune, and comfort that comes (or they think comes) from a position in the media.

My inner cynic is reinforced by having seen too many people climb over others to get a story that will make them a household name. Consequently, when I read about what your sister and her team had done a year ago, it was easy for me to imagine they were setting foot on North Korean soil so that they could have a great story — a hook with which their network could draw in readers and viewers to their story.

This was a gut feeling, but my gut has served me well in this story: I was one of the few who publicly stated early on that your sister and her team had probably in fact willingly set foot on North Korean soil. Imagining a team of journalists naïvely and foolishly trying to get that scoop — "Look, we snuck into North Korea!" — was what guided me toward what turned out to be a correct set of assumptions.

But I'll tentatively withdraw the accusation of self-aggrandizement, particularly if you and your sister are not earning any money from the book and your sister is far more frank and forthcoming about her own foolish mistakes and their grave consequences (her letter to the Los Angeles Times sounded self-servingly evasive and seemed to put forth inaccurate information toward that end). Simply expressing "regret" is inadequate penitence. (And I extend the same to Euna Lee.)

If those things happen, then I would also retract my "don't buy this book" admonishment. Ultimately, we are on the same side of the issues related to the indescribably cruel DPRK regime, so if some organizations like Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) can receive money for their efforts to guide North Korean refugees out of China, bring news from the outside world into North Korea and vice-versa, or erode the grip Kim Jong-il's government has on the people of North Korea, then I see some benefit in the book, even if it was borne from terrific folly.

I thank God your sister and Euna Lee are safe and back with their families. Despite the critical and even angry tone I have used in my writings (and my mother the Oprah fan would be horrified that I have been so mean to Lisa Ling), I have never wished any harm on them. Strip away the international news story and the political intrigue and this is still your sister, your parents' beloved daughter, and her husband's precious wife, and so of course this whole ordeal is poignantly personal.

But please remember that the refugees she and her team placed at risk, whose lives or liberty may now be gone, also have parents, children, spouses, and siblings who love them and feel torn apart for having lost them. That must be acknowledged and adequately answered for. Atonement and penance is a long road back.

Please feel free to respond to my remarks in any way you see fit. As I promised when you graciously allowed me to reprint your letter, I give you the final word on this. I look forward to whatever response you wish to give.