Monday, August 10, 2009

How To Become Famous in North Korea

Entrepreneurship is often the savior of a down economy. The explosion of new media has not only created new opportunities for entrepreneurs, but a new breed of entrepreneurs who peddle, well, absolutely nothing. Nothing more than themselves. The internet and reality television have changed the very nature of both marketing and celebrity. Before America could fully accept how Paris Hilton achieved widespread relevance (book deals, television shows, etc.) we were left to wonder where Perez Hilton came from and how his opinions could so drastically alter the course of Miss California's career, and influence the national discussion on the definition of marriage (in addition to book deals, television shows, etc.).

Despite the current boom of blogger celebrities, for millions in the blogosphere the prize remains elusive. However, recent events in North Korea have paved the fastlane for two fortunate unknown journalists. No blog necessary. Right now, Laura Ling and Euna Lee are fielding six figure offers for interviews and million dollar book deals, the fruits of a four month self-inflicted misadventure in Pyongyang. The stakes are high, but for anyone seeking celebrity status there appears to be no quicker way. After closely examining their story, I believe I have uncovered the formula.

Behave Stupidly In A Foreign Socialist Nation
Upon returning to the United States, Laura and Euna were greeted as heroes, beacons of hope and a uniquely American brand of courage. Held as political prisoners for 140 days by one of the world's last remaining freak despots, they were ultimately rescued from 12 years of hard labor and returned safely to their families and their freedom.

But the question remains: why were Laura and Euna in North Korea to begin with?

Working for Al Gore, of course. The two women were on assignment for Gore's little-known Current TV, covering refugees crossing the border between North Korea into China. However, what few press credentials they have between them are meager, to say the least. Laura Ling is younger sister to Lisa Ling, former co-host of ABC's "The View", and had done only minor reporting for Current TV prior to her capture. Euna Lee, on the other hand, had no journalistic experience whatsoever. This could explain why Laura and Euna took it upon themselves to cross casually into one of the most dangerous and isolated countries on earth. As Laura tweeted upon landing in the Seoul airport, "Hoping my kimchee breath will ward off all danger." Further, Rev. Chun Ki-won of the Seoul-based Durihana Mission warned them not to venture into North Korea. "I told them very clearly not to go to the border," he said.

Thus their error was not one of ignorance (which would still be inexcusable for any news outlet worth its salt) but of plain stupidity.

Perhaps in a healthier economy the American people would make a bigger deal out of their return home. The lack of attention suggests that people realize they have far more important things to focus on. However, what bothers me isn't that their story is receiving insufficient coverage, but that the nature of the coverage is so celebratory, as though the United States has claimed some sort of victory.

The only winners here, in this order, are: Laura Ling and Euna Lee, Bill Clinton and, last but certainly not least, North Korea (honorable mentions go out to the highest bidding talk shows and publishers). For Laura Ling and Euna Lee, their act of stupidity not only thrust them into the middle of a major international conflict, it may well have 'made' their careers as journalists or, at the very least, public figures (a far more lucrative profession these days).

For Bill Clinton, the clean slate has received a fresh coat of polish. Yet, at what cost? The official word on Clinton's visit to North Korea is that it was a private, strictly humanitarian effort, with no connection to the the United States Government or the Obama Administration. However, according to Daniel Sneider, associate director of of research at Stanford University's Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Clinton's arrival in Pyongyang was merely the icing on the cake. "[Clinton] didn't go to negotiate this, he went to reap the fruits of the negotiation," Sneider said.

But congratulations are certainly in order for President Obama, who once again was able to navigate through controversial matters and accomplish his goals indirectly, without his name attached.

However, the true winners are North Korea and, more directly, Kim Jong Il. Not only did he enjoy the honor of capturing, trying and sentencing two United States citizens, under threat of a horrific twelve year sentence, he was able to extend the United States a kind gesture by staying his own misguided hand. Further, the private nature of Clinton's visit has kept a tight lid on the details of their negotiations, which many believe could have catastrophic implications regarding our ongoing nuclear tug-of-war. After all, we kind of owe him one.

So what can we take away from this international clusterfuck? The Clinton Administration has still got it -- Al Gore sets 'em up and Slick Willy knocks em down. President Obama can put off dealing with North Korea for a little while longer. Meanwhile a couple of bumbling so-called journalists can consider their celebrity tickets officially punched.

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