WASHINGTON - It sounds like a movie script: Two California women traverse a foreign country looking to write about oppressed and abused women. The well-intentioned souls disappear without a trace, snatched by government security forces and forced into a world of barren prison cells and mock trials for "espionage."
Yet this is not Hollywood. It is reality for Americans Euna Lee and Laura Ling, who are being held in North Korea.
In the coming days, Lee and Ling are likely to be put on trial in one of the darkest and most unjust places in the world. Two months ago, the San Francisco-based journalists were researching a story for former vice president Al Gore's television production group, Current TV, about the predatory trafficking of young North Korean women who dare to vote with their feet and escape across the border to China in search of a better life. While reportedly traveling along the Sino-North Korean border, Lee and Ling were accosted by North Korean security police, stripped of any rights and detained on accusations of espionage.
A trial of these two innocent Americans could result in their being sentenced to notorious labor camps that are reminiscent of Stalin's gulags. The North has previously held Americans - such as the crew of the USS Pueblo, captured in 1968, and a U.S. helicopter pilot, detained in the 1990s. The U.S. government eventually secured the captives' release.
Two Korean Americans who crossed into the North in the 1990s were also detained but released.
One of the U.S. president's most important responsibilities is to protect his country's citizens. Yet it appears that the Obama administration has done little to save these women.
To be fair, the United States has no diplomatic offices in North Korea to work on the issue. But there are other, if imperfect, channels, such as working through the Swedes or the Chinese.
Meanwhile, it does not help that North Korea's recent actions - including its test of a ballistic missile last month, its boycott of the six-party talks and its threats to conduct a second nuclear test - have effectively poured cold water on every attempt that President Obama has made to extend a hand to Pyongyang's mercurial leader. This spate of belligerent behavior stems less from anything Obama has done than from the internal fluidity created by the transition process that is apparently underway to replace the ailing Kim Jong Il.
The United States needs to send a high-level envoy to North Korea to bring these women home. The obvious candidate would be Gore. The North Koreans would respect someone of his stature, and his stake in the issue would make his mission eminently credible. Without fear of setting or breaking diplomatic precedent, he could issue whatever "apologies" were necessary to secure the two women's release; similar token apologies have been issued in the past.
Having participated in a mission to bring home the remains of American servicemen killed in the Korean War, I know that such humanitarian efforts afford opportunities to move the larger diplomatic situation forward. Some say that Obama's last message to North Korea was lost in the noise of Pyongyang's missile test and the punitive response of the United Nations. Now that there is a momentary lull in the noise, Gore could reiterate the president's message of peace and convey the administration's willingness to engage, thereby averting further nuclear brinkmanship by Pyongyang.
Some will argue that we should not respond to North Korean extortion tactics. In principle, we should not. But the administration cannot stand by and watch these innocent women be thrown into the living hell of North Korean labor camps. Securing their safe passage home is the most important thing. And gaining a glimpse into the emerging leadership in North Korea would be useful.
The writer, a professor at Georgetown University and director of its School of Foreign Service's Asian Studies Department, was director of Asian affairs at the White House from 2004 to 2007. He traveled to Pyongyang, North Korea, with former veterans affairs secretary Anthony Principi and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in April 2007 to retrieve six sets of American remains.