With North Korea's conviction and sentencing of two American journalists today to 12 years of prison labor, reporters have again been used as proxies in a cynical game waged by rogue states to gain leverage in negotiations with the West. This follows on the heels of now-freed Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who was released last month in a supposed goodwill gesture by Tehran. These sagas, like so many situations involving rogue states, are little more than manufactured crises designed to wrest concessions.
Already, articles have cropped up in Time magazine and elsewhere pondering how the United States will "reciprocate" the Iranian gesture. The most common theory is that the US will consider releasing three captured Iranian diplomats held in Iraq as part of a quid pro quo arrangement. It would be ill-advised, however, to reward the "reasonable" act of releasing a journalist, given the fact that Ms. Saberi's detention was an unreasonable and provocative act in the first place.
The same is predicted to hold true of the North Koreans, according to one expert, who stated today that "North Korea will certainly use the reporters as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States."
These dramas are the latest in a long line of faux controversies fashioned by Western adversaries. Recall the 2007 capture of 15 British sailors under the dubious claim that they had violated Iran's territorial waters. While Iran claimed their release a few weeks later was nothing more than a "present to the British people," it is no coincidence that shortly thereafter, a captured Iranian diplomat was released in Iraq and that other detained Iranians received sought-after consultations with an Iranian delegation. Nor was it coincidence that Iran soon received notice that Britain would suspend antismuggling operations in the area.
By rewarding such unreasonable behavior, and making political pawns of innocent bystanders, the West merely encourages further antagonistic acts. If Pyongyang wins concessions in exchange for the release of journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, it is a safe bet that the North will continue to pursue frivolous cases against Westerners to gain further leverage in winning aid or nuclear negotiations.
The same holds true for Iran: If the US reciprocates Tehran's gesture by releasing the three Iranian detainees held in Iraq, it will only be a matter of time before another hapless Westerner is put on trial on exaggerated or outright fabricated espionage charges.
These situations are emblematic of what columnist Charles Krauthammer calls "kick-me diplomacy." Rival nations take liberties against citizens and interests of the US and the West, and the responses range from shameful silence to outright capitulation, as was the case with the captured British sailors. Rather than engage in petty brinkmanship and legitimize, or even reward, such provocative behavior, the US and the West must adopt a hard line.
There are, of course, situations where a quid pro quo prisoner swap is justified, such as when both prisoners were legitimate spies. The 1962 exchange of downed U2 pilot Gary Powers and Russian spy Rudolf Abel is a prime example of a justified swap.
The desire to grant concessions for the release of imprisoned journalists or citizens, is, of course, an understandable one. Intense domestic pressure to "bring them home" makes any hard-line stance by the West a risky political move. But there's a good reason why "we don't negotiate with terrorists." Even it causes short-term pain, it saves countless other innocents from becoming victims. When a citizen of a friendly nation is used as a pawn as part of a rogue-state scheme, the West must swiftly and effectively level retaliatory political and economic sanctions on the offending state. Upon realizing that their cynical game of sham accusations will only bring swift retribution, rogue states will be less apt to attempt it in the future.
Allan Richarz is a writer and teacher currently working near Tokyo.