All Detained Americans Are Not the Same

Photo courtesy of Flickr/gin_e

My ears perked up last week upon hearing that after six months of being detained in North Korea, American citizen Eddie Jun was freed last week on humanitarian grounds. Jun, a Los Angeles business man, was detained by North Korean authorities last November for alleged proselytizing while in North Korea on a business visa. As with Cuba, U.S-North Korea relations are colored by years of distrust and miscommunication. But unlike Cuba, North Korea is a nuclear power. That means that in world of finite U.S. diplomatic resources, North Korea demands our attention in a way Cuba  never will. So despite, in indeed perhaps because of, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's proclivity for belligerent and provocative acts,  the U.S. continues to rely on a mix of both sanctions and engagement in its dealing with Pyongyang. 

Amid reports that flooding and an outbreak of disease have contributed to one of the worst food shortages in years, North Korea recently took the unusual step of asking for help from some of its most long-standing foes, including the United States. Against this backdrop, the detention (and subsequent release) of American Eddie Jun was seen as part of the North’s strategy of re-engaging the U.S. in a conversation about providing food assistance to North Korea. (U.S. assistance stopped in 2008 after North Korea expelled food aid monitors there to verify that aid was going to the neediest North Koreans, not being siphoned off for use by government officials.) 

The debate about food aid to North Korea is a heated one, and has been since the international community’s first major humanitarian response to widespread famine in North Korea in the early 1990s that killed nearly one million people. The two sides of the debate go something like this- proponents argue the assistance is humanitarian, and to withhold it is a human rights violation, while those who oppose aid argue that reinstating it would amount to rewarding Pyongyang’s bad behavior, and would only serve to strengthen the North Korean regime.  Sound vaguely familiar Cuba-philes?

This familiar script played  last week as U.S. special envoy Robert King departed for Pyongyang on a mission to evaluate the North’s food needs. In conjunction with his trip, Senators Lieberman, McCain, Webb and Kyl sent a letter to Secretary Clinton advocating that security concerns trump humanitarian considerations when it comes to the U.S.’s dealings with Pyongyang saying,

 “North Korea would not lack for food if its leaders wanted to purchase it. Rather, Kim Jong Il has dedicated funds to luxury goods and weapons of mass destruction programs while counting on the international community to come to the aid of the North Korean people. This is not behavior that we should encourage or subsidize.” 

Despite the potential for such accusations of being "soft" on yet another dictator, the Administration proceeded with the visit. When King left Pyongyang with Jun in tow, the State Department defended the move saying that U.S. decisions about food aid are in no way related to "any policy decision if you will. It's a separate process all together." The risks of non-engagement with Pyongyang are too high for Washington to sit on the sidelines, a fact driven home each time another high-level American visitor touches down in Pyongyang. The fact that the Jun is now free while American contractor Alan Gross remains in Cuba reveals the bitter reality that Cuba, and any American detained there, is simply not a priority. 

It has now been more than 17 months since Gross was detained by Cuban authorities for distributing high-tech communications equipment to members of the island’s Jewish community. The most tragic thing about this equation is that Gross’s release could very likely be accelerated if Washington should get out of the business of contracting out democracy promotion and allow Americans to travel to Cuba without restriction. Such a move would expand opportunities for cultural, faith-based and educational exchange with Cubans as well as provide a significant influx of potential customers for Cuba’s burgeoning private sector. Not to mention that continuing the program is simply fiscally irresponsible. As Tracey Eaton details at The Cuba Money project, the U.S has spent some $150 million on the program since 1996 and for every $1 million that the U.S. government spends, just $5.60 goes to Cuba.

Cuba long ago ceased to pose any threat to the security of the United States. In comparison to the policy challenges posed by other hostile regimes such as North Korea, Iran and Libya, relatively speaking, Cuba is low-hanging fruit. The path toward better relations with Havana is reasonably clear and a much easier lift. We should not hesitate any longer to discard failed policies, and therein accelerate Mr. Gross' return home.