x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Pawns in Pyongyang power play

Analysts believe the harsh ruling imposed on two American journalists is a tactical ploy to avoid sanctions over its recent nuclear test.

South Korean protesters demand the release of American journalists detained in North Korea.
South Korean protesters demand the release of American journalists detained in North Korea.

BEIJING // The harsh sentences given to two US journalists by North Korea are seen by analysts as a high-stakes negotiating tactic to avoid sanctions over its recent nuclear test, and also as a statement to the United States that Pyongyang wants its sovereignty respected as Kim Jong Il transfers power to his youngest son. North Korea's central court sentenced Laura Ling and Euna Lee to 12 years of hard labour for illegally entering the country and "grave crimes", the state Korean Central News Agency reported on Monday.

The sentences were harsher than US officials expected. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said the pair should be freed immediately, while family members urged Pyongyang to show compassion. "The 12-year sentence is out of the ordinary," said Zhu Feng, a security expert at Peking University. "North Koreans are using the journalists as a ransom in its negotiation with the US." The severe sentences have put the US administration in a dilemma. To secure the pair's release, it will be forced to engage North Korea after calling for its increased isolation after recent missile and nuclear tests.

The US president, Barack Obama, said on Saturday the US was "not intending to continue a policy of rewarding provocation" by warning North Korea that it would not get special treatment because of its nuclear tests and "taking a very hard look at how we move forward on these issues". He said the US was working with the UN on a resolution to punish North Korea. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on Sunday signalled the US administration was seeking to interdict North Korean sea and air shipments. She said the US was also considering putting North Korea back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism and implementing economic sanctions in addition to those meted out by the UN Security Council.

The harsh sentencing of the journalists is thought to be a ploy by North Korea to gain the upper hand with Washington before any sanctions are imposed. Their release "will cost the US something, whether it likes it or not", said Andrei Lankov, an expert on North Korea at Seoul's Kookmin University. John Feffer, the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus, a Washington-based think tank, said the sentence was meant to open direct dialogue with the US. He said North Korea wanted a high-level US envoy who would visit the nation on behalf of the US government to obtain the journalists' release and also to discuss other pending issues, such as the nuclear test. "Al Gore is a useful person to go. And he, of course, could hold discussions on a variety of different topics. My own feeling is that North Koreans respect military leaders a great deal. I think it would be interesting to send someone like Colin Powell to Pyongyang."

According to Mr Feffer, the sentence was also a message it wants its sovereignty respected: "North Korea is saying that as a sovereign state it has the right to police its border, it has the right to launch a rocket, it has a right to have a nuclear weapon." An additional problem for the US is that after all the tough talk of recent days, North Korea could demand an apology on behalf of the journalists to win their release. That might be difficult for the chief US diplomat, Mrs Clinton, who on several occasions has made statements repudiating North Korean claims that the journalists had illegally entered its territory. Last week she slammed the charges against Ms Ling and Ms Lee as "baseless" and "absolutely without merit or foundation".

However, in a television interview last weekend, Mrs Clinton amended her position, saying she had sent a letter to North Korea, stating the journalists "didn't mean to enter" North Korea. Ian Kelly, a US state department spokesman, said he would keep the content of the diplomatic correspondence "private", and could not confirm whether the letter contained an expression of apology. Suh Jae-jung, a director of Korea Studies at Johns Hopkins University in the US, said: "At least no one [informed about the case] has disputed that the two US journalists had entered the North Korean territory."

North Korea has held US citizens in the past and been able to negotiate for their release. But during this volatile time, Mr Zhu is cautious: "The 12-year heavy sentence indicates that North Korea is going tough, saying 'we are not going to yield to the international pressure'." Experts hopeful of a release believe a high-level US envoy's visit to North Korea would work and could lessen tensions. But they are pessimistic about whether that would lead to fundamental change in US policy on North Korea. "I do not think the US will compromise on big issues. The journalists are merely a part of the big package," Mr Lankov said.