It is difficult to describe the fear that comes with being arrested and detained in a foreign country. The sense of darkness in that first week of North Korean captivity was unbearable. My biggest fear was nobody knowing where I was or what had happened to me. The strained relations between the United States and North Korea only increased my despair.Reciprocity is an important issue when it comes to how we treat other countries' citizens, for it has some bearing, as Ms Lee states, on how other countries treat our own. International norms of conduct can protect Americans and others, by making certain forms of legal treatment standard. I made a similar point about capital punishment in this post from 2006 (see point #6).
In the middle of the second week, though, I was handed a lifeline: a meeting with the Swedish ambassador, who represented U.S. interests and pointed out to North Korea its responsibilities under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. His hard work yielded a meeting no longer than 10 minutes, but the significance is hard to express. I can only mention the sense of security I now had — that someone outside of North Korea was monitoring my case. The prompt consular access, I believe, protected me from any physical mistreatment by my captors. I was allowed to meet with the ambassador three more times. The meetings were my only communication with the U.S. government — the only way for me to ask for help and to deliver messages to my family. I know the importance of what the Vienna Convention provides.
Legislation has been introduced in Congress to ensure judicial review of death penalty cases involving foreign nationals who were not given consular access under the Vienna Convention. This legislation is not only a matter of honoring our obligations to such inmates. There are still many American journalists, aid workers, missionaries, members of the military and tourists detained in foreign countries. For all of them, and for their fearful families at home, there is nothing more important than upholding the reciprocal right to consular protection. With this legislation, Congress can protect that right.
Though I have derided the acts of Euna Lee, Laura Ling, and their colleague Mitch Koss — I coined the term stupogant — it is quite interesting to see Ms Lee take her experience and go in a totally unexpected direction with it. In her op-ed she makes an appeal for a Mexican national convicted of murder in the United States, saying his lack of consular access makes his impending execution unjust and wrong.
This also touches on the aforementioned capital punishment post: often we are using the cases of the clearly guilty in order to save people in the future who may not deserve to be executed, especially in a country requiring a lower threshold of evidence (e.g., Iran) or criminal transgression (e.g., China, where white-collar criminals and drug dealers are executed).