Should Ill-Fated Activists Expect Rescue from Washington?

Kenneth Bae is a 44-year-old Christian missionary who was arrested last November while leading a tour of North Korea’s Rason special economic zone. He wanted to spread the Gospel, but the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea views religion as a particularly serious threat.

Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. His letters home, said his sister, Terri Chung, “contained the same message—Kenneth’s health is failing, and he asked us to seek help from our government to bring him home.”  He urged Washington to send an envoy for him.

Bae’s mother was even more insistent:  “I don’t see any action.  I want to ask them, send an envoy or do something.  As a mother, I am really getting angry, really getting angry.  What do they do?”

It’s a tragic situation.  But it isn’t the U.S. government’s responsibility to win the release American citizens who knowingly violate the laws of other nations. I say that even though I have traveled multiple times with ethnic Karen guerrillas in eastern Burma. I didn’t expect a rescue from Washington if something went wrong. After all, I’d chosen to enter a war zone.

The U.S. government has called for Bae’s humanitarian release. The DPRK almost certainly wants to use him to win one concession or another. In the past, that has meant a high-level visit to Pyongyang:  Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter both have played that role.  But the administration is sending an envoy and Pyongyang might want more this time. 

An unofficial visit would be a small price to pay. However, Washington shouldn’t get into the business of buying the release of official hostages. There’s a good argument for changing U.S. policy toward Pyongyang, but not under duress. As I point out in my latest article on American Spectator online:

In general, the more the U.S. invests in releasing prisoners in foreign lands, the more valuable they will come to be seen—thus creating a greater incentive to grab Americans in the future. The problem goes well beyond the North [Koreans]. It’s why Washington takes the tough but sensible position of refusing to ransom kidnap victims, unlike many other governments. Refusing to buy hostages’ freedom seems harsh, but groups ranging from the Taliban to Somali pirates have helped fund their activities with money earned by Westerners. Americans would be particularly vulnerable because of their government’s promiscuous intervention around the world. 

A willingness to dicker also inevitably invites policy as well as financial demands. Changes, big or small, might be desirable—bombing, invading, and occupying other nations have proved to be far more costly than predicted—but Washington can’t change course every time a U.S. citizen is threatened. Officials should take the risk to Americans into account when designing policies around the world. However, Uncle Sam shouldn’t change those policies because Americans have been placed at risk.

Especially when prisoners, like Bae, are the authors of their own plight. One of the nation’s strengths is people’s willingness to risk their lives and freedom to help others. Often they are doing what the U.S. government cannot or does not want to do—act within other countries without official approval, back insurgents or human rights activists, proselytize their faith, and more. However, in challenging the local authorities when Washington is unwilling to do so, such people must understand that they are acting on their own. If the U.S. government doesn’t sponsor and oversee their activities, it cannot be expected to take responsibility for them if things go wrong.

In fact, government action on behalf of activists who violated other nations’ laws could be taken as evidence that the freelancers actually were official agents. Washington would get blamed and other governments might be more inclined in the future to grab American travelers to get Washington’s attention.

We should all hope Kenneth Bae returns home soon. But perhaps he should address Dennis Rodman rather than Barack Obama to arrange a special envoy. It isn’t Washington’s job to get him out of the Pyongyang Hilton.