BANGKOK — Even relatively small misunderstandings, festering underground over time and eating into the foundations of stability, can cause wars. Some poisons work immediately; other poisons take time.

Let us consider a serious current poison that the U.S. media has underplayed — mostly deliberately — of late. North Korean guards or soldiers, stationed on the China border, grabbed two young American journalists, yanked them into North Korea and slammed them into holding pens, probably into a well-known detention/interrogation facility in Pyongyang, the capital.

The two reporters — Laura Ling and Euna Lee, representing the San Francisco-based media outlet Current TV, the brainchild of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore — were apparently shooting video footage of the North Korean border and into the frontier as far as their camera lenses would allow. That area is famous as a tense crossing spot for North Koreans trying to flee to China.

The comparative merits of the two countries, at least in the eyes of fleeing North Koreans, may be gauged in their assessment that, of the two, the utopia they very greatly prefer while risking their life to get there, is China.

The government of Pyongyang has said it seized the journalists, presumably on the well-traveled grounds of “espionage”; and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul confirmed to me that the U.S. government is not, as I feared, brain dead, and is endeavoring to obtain their release. One official close to the issue, who understandably requires complete anonymity, told me, “I think the working assumption is that not raising the public temperature any further is the way to go for now.”

This means the Obama administration is determined to pursue the time-tested (but, unfortunately, not always successful) strategy of quiet diplomacy. At this writing, the task has been handed to special U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth, a career diplomat and the Dean of the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts.

These journalists must be released promptly. There is much more destructive poison underneath this event than at first meets the eye. This column is an argument for noisy diplomacy.

The North Korean government needs to understand that the kidnapping of the journalists only plays into the hands of the Japanese government. Ever since the helpful but nonconclusive six-party talks on North Korea began, Tokyo — openly mistrustful of Pyongyang’s intentions — has been insistent on a resolution of the long-festering issue of the fate of their own citizens who have been, over the years, kidnapped by this harsh regime. Thus, so long as the North Koreans hold the two Americans, the less dogmatic, carping and purely self-interested do the Japanese complaints come to seem in the eyes of the world.

For its part, the Chinese government needs to understand that the snatching of the young U.S. journalists makes it look impotent in the face of North Korea, after it had organized, with sincerity, the six-party talks. This kidnapping incident has the potential to erode its international credibility. American media so far have taken a low-key position on the story, undoubtedly reflecting the State Department’s admonitions to keep it out of the spotlight. But that tacit cooperation won’t last forever.

At the end of the day, relations between China and the United States are governed not only by a cold computing of basic national interests, but also by the powerful weight of public opinion. Polls consistently show the American public eager to engage with China and even work cooperatively.

But should the public begin to suspect that the Chinese regime is not qualitatively different in moral norms from its neighbor North Korea, support for sustaining a friendly relationship will erode, and the fiercest hawks among us Americans will, before long, be in full battle-fatigue fury.

The Obama administration needs to understand that its entire Korean Peninsula policy of negotiation and engagement — which for the time being deserves great support — could come unglued by ineffective action or, worse yet, inaction.

If another North Korean missile-test launch (for which the government is said to be preparing) takes place against the backdrop of the imprisonment of journalists, the American public might put one and one together and reach a conclusion inimical to further negotiations.

A fast sprint back through history shows that, more often than not, it is the little incidents that trigger the big wars. It is the “minor” misunderstandings that trigger the chain of events that lead to unparalleled tragedy.

Reporters Ling and Lee need to be released now. The North Korean blunder is perfect fodder for the warmongers on the very hawkish side of the difficult and potentially conflict-making Korean issue.

Los Angeles-based syndicated columnist Tom Plate taught undergraduates at the University of California, Los Angeles, from 1994-2008. One of those students was Laura Ling. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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