An interesting quirk of authoritarian states’ foreign policies is a tendency to take western hostages when they wander onto their territory. Iran, China, and North Korea do this quite regularly. Burma too has gotten into the act lately.
Iran has repeatedly detained Iranian-Americans and journalists on all kinds of ridiculous charges like threatening the honor of Islam. Right now, it is holding three US hikers, who incredibly were hiking in Kurdistan and accidentally wandered into Iran. Call their destination choice a brain failure – a chronic disease among Americans traveling.
NK this year alone held two Americans for 3 months and a South Korean for 6. In the 1990s, after Tiananmen, China used to imprison Chinese-American human rights campaigners.
The first, most obvious question, is how these people wind up in these places. Usually, it is out of stupidity. It looks increasingly like Laura Ling and Euna Lee did in fact land, if only for a moment, on the NK side of the Yalu. And the American who swam to see Aung San Suu Kyi probably deserved some jail time or a fine. And the same goes for those hikers now held in Iran. Who goes back-packing for leisure along the Iran-Iraq border?! One can only imagine Bill Clinton or Jim Webb shaking their heads in disbelief when they are called upon to get these people out.
But there is a larger IR question here too. These accidental penetrations are usually mishaps or stupidity. So when they are convicted as ‘spies,’ it is almost always farcical, and the West knows it. This begs the question then, why do it? The process has become ritualized: arrest, followed by CNN & world news overexposure, then lots of backroom haggling, finally a trip by some dignitary to ‘win’ the release, concluding with a weird photo-op in-country, and then another overexposed media frenzy on the ‘prisoners’ return. (I heard Lara Ling is already looking for a book deal.) Here are a few thoughts why authoritarian states draw out this song-and-dance as much as possible:
1. The more closed your state is the more paranoid you become about any foreign intrusion, no matter how ridiculous, minor, or foolish. This is why the USSR was able to casually destroy KAL 007 in 1983, and Iran accused the BBC of sparking the recent post-election riots.
2. In the world of globalization and the Great Recession, no one really cares much for the bad behavior of NK or Burma. They are international headaches most of us like to forget about. So these sorts of incidents, with all their ritual, hysterical family outbursts, and Larry King interviews, are a great way for small, irrelevant states to garner rare global attention. Use whatever you’ve got to whip up a storm of attention. When China used to do this in the 1980s, China hands called it ’gong-banging.’
3. Authoritarian states can simultaneously use these accidental intrusions for domestic prestige-taking. North Korea and other rabidly antiwestern regimes can periodically demonstrate to their own people the importance of the struggle against the US. This stuff helps justify the deprivation and international isolation.
4. Your can always garner a few nice concessions by trading these people back. If you are dirt-poor North Korea, you can trade SK or other hostages for all sorts of goodies – whiskey, dollars, cigarettes. If you are Iran, ask for spare parts for you collapsing industrial plant.