Was there ever a failed state as barbaric as North Korea? Not only is this “rogue nation” endangering the security of the planet in its efforts to elbow its way into the exclusive club of nuclear powers but it has now dispatched two Asian-American journalists for twelve-year prison terms in one of its labor camps, notorious for their brutality and appalling conditions. The women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, work for a TV channel owned by former Vice President Al Gore. According to their friends, the two crossed North Korea’s border with China, intent on investigating the alleged trafficking of women.

Leaving aside the obvious fact that the fates and harsh sentences faced by Ling and Lee are tied up with the evolution of relations between North Korea and the new Obama government, let’s try to achieve some sense of balance on the charge of barbarism. Let’s suppose a country has endured a half-century of continuous attack by assailants based in the United States, suffering nearly 3,500 dead and 2,000 wounded. Let’s further suppose that this country faces sabotage of its budding tourism industry, including the bombing of hotels and murder of tourists. Now let us suppose that this country sends investigators to infiltrate the assailants and hands the results of the probe to the FBI. The investigators I’m talking about are the Cuban Five–courageous men who went to southern Florida and penetrated the Miami-based gangs, specifically Alpha 66, the F4 Commandos, the Cuban American National Foundation and Brothers to the Rescue.

In 1998, after Fidel Castro had dispatched Gabriel García Márquez as an emissary to the Clinton White House, the United States sent an FBI team to Havana to discuss the gangs’ attacks. Cuba handed over sixty-four files on thirty-one terrorist acts and plans against Cuba in the 1990s.

Cuba expected the FBI to start arresting the terrorists. Instead, on September 12, 1998, the FBI arrested the very investigators who had come to Miami to probe the activities of the Miami terrorists. Gerardo Hernández received a double life sentence, and Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino received life sentences. The remaining two, Fernando González and René González, received nineteen and fifteen years, respectively.

It’s true that the Cuban Five weren’t sent to a labor camp akin to those in the North Korean gulag. Where they were sent, however, was described by Hernández earlier this year at CounterPunch, in an interview with filmmaker Saul Landau, who is making a documentary about the men:

GH: “They took us to the prison, the Center of Federal Detention in Miami, and put us in ‘the hole.'”

SL: “For how long?”

GH: “Seventeen months…. You’re in the cell twenty-three hours a day and [get] one hour a day of recreation, where they take you to another place. In Miami it was…a bit bigger and with this grid, through which you could see a little piece of the sky. You could tell if it was day or night…. There we were twenty-three, sometimes twenty-four hours a day inside those four small walls, with nothing to do. It’s very difficult, from a humane point of view. And many people couldn’t take it. You could see them start to lose their minds, start screaming.”

Having set North Korea’s barbarity in a larger perspective, let us turn to the dangers its testing program and intermittent detonations pose to world security. On May 25 North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test, two and a half years after the first. Obama promptly denounced it as “a grave threat to the peace and stability of the world.” He added that North Korea’s actions had “flown in the face of United Nations resolutions” and were inviting deeper international isolation.

Almost four months earlier, Obama had nothing to say when, on February 3 or 4, two nuclear-powered submarines–one British, one French, each carrying nuclear missiles–collided in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the North Koreans, who immediately reported their test to the world, neither Britain nor France said anything. Nor did the United States. On February 16 the British, Murdoch-owned Sun was the first paper to disclose the crash. Then, and only then, an anonymous British official said the sub Vanguard‘s “deterrent capability has remained unaffected and there has been no compromise to nuclear safety.” The question of what either sub was supposed to be deterring was not addressed.

France’s Defense Ministry said in a brief statement on February 6 that the sub Le Triomphant struck “a submerged object (probably a container)” during a return from a patrol, damaging its front sonar dome. The ministry did not confirm the date of the collision and didn’t mention the British sub. The Vanguard limped back to home port, considerably dented, according to observers. Le Triomphant was escorted by a frigate back to its base on France’s west coast. There is no reason to believe a single word of either the British or French government’s account of the crash.

Sarkozy’s first speech on “defense” after he became president came with the dedication of Le Triomphant‘s sister sub, Le Terrible, and a threat to nuke Iran. Blair closed out his decade as prime minister by announcing a new series of nuclear subs to carry Trident nukes. He singled out North Korea for specific mention. “No single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons,” Obama declared piously in Cairo–even as he told Iran that “when it comes to nuclear weapons, we have reached a decisive point,” and as his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, went on ABC to talk murkily about “consequences and costs” if Iran develops nuclear weapons and then stumbled through a hypothesis about a US attack, even “a first strike.”

And they call North Korea a rogue nation?