Why North Korea Has the Upper Hand in the American Prisoner Negotiations

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Why North Korea Has the Upper Hand in the American Prisoner Negotiations
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Why North Korea Has the Upper Hand in the American Prisoner Negotiations

North Korean state-run media now insists the country has no plans to use Kenneth Bae, the American citizen sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp, "as a political bargaining chip" — and that the foreign ministry "has no plan to invite anyone of the U.S.," even though that kind of a deal might be in Pyongyang's best interests. Of course, North Korean propaganda has never been reliable, but the Kim regime knows exactly what it's doing in the latest chess match with the State Department. Here's why the DPRK might actually be worth believing this time around.

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The Korean Central News Agency has reported on everything from secret unicorn lairs and Kim Jong-il's golf supremacy to a nuclear war threat that never materialized. And today (via CNN) comes the latest from KCNA on the latest negotiations over Bae, who is referred to in Korea as Pae Jun Ho:

Pae's case proves that as long as the U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK remains unchanged, humanitarian generosity will be of no use in ending Americans' illegal acts ...

Some media of the U.S. said that the DPRK tried to use Pae's case as a political bargaining chip. This is ridiculous and wrong guess ...The DPRK has no plan to invite anyone of the U.S. as regards Pae's issue

The New York Times breaks it down:

On Sunday, North Korea said it had previously freed American citizens as “humanitarian” gestures because prominent Americans visited Pyongyang and “apologized for their crimes and promised to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents.”

...

This time, North Korea “has no plan to invite anyone of the U.S. as regards the issue,” a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying Sunday by the official Korean Central News Agency.

This tactic comes as something as a surprise to Korea watchers, who think that Bae, the sixth U.S. prisoner since 2009, is something of a perfect pawn for Pyongyang's style. As one Korean think-tank expert told the AP, "North Korea is using Bae as bait to make such a visit happen. An American bigwig visiting Pyongyang would also burnish Kim Jong Un's leadership profile." Not only would the young buck look like a man with diplomatic pull — Dennis Rodman isn't exactly Bill Clinton, who came to the rescue four years ago — but a U.S. diplomatic rescue mission would make triumphant headlines across North Korea, where KCNA could change the tone from nuclear boy wold to Kim Jong-un, international young man of might: "[T]he agency also serves a broader purpose, setting the mood for a nation — and changing that mood at the direction of the nation's leaders," The Washington Post's Chico Harlan writes of the state media agency.

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But let's take North Korea at its word because, well, maybe they don't need the bargaining chip after all. Here's what we know right now:

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If Bae was a bargaining chip, we would've known earlier.

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If you look at the timeline of North Korean hysteria, you'll notice that Bae was actually arrested more than a month before the rocket launch that stole the world's attention. Bae was detained on November 3. The surprise triggering of a long-range Unha-3 missile came on December 12. But Bae's capture wasn't announced by the state-run media until December 21. It would appear that North Korea was plotting Bae's arrest long before his arrest and long before the results of the test in February. The sentencing arrived last week, when all was relatively quiet on the Pyongyang front, making one wonder why Bae is not a bargaining chip... or if Kim has something bigger up his sleeve... or if anyone's actually telling the truth about Bae's detainment. 

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Bae is facing more charges than we thought.

after a hard drive belonging to him was discovered, with pictures of starving North Korean children on it. The France-North Korea Friendship Association, a pro-North Korean organization, had stated that the toughest punishments photographers can face in the country usually involve expulsion from the country, based on the secret taking and subsequent deletion of pictures. But now there's more: "Bae entered North Korea 'with a disguised identity,'" reads CNN's gleaning of the new KCNA report. "He reportedly 'confessed and admitted his crimes.'" If Bae was upfront about taking the photos in secret, he might be getting off easier than anyone imagined.

A U.S. delegation of headliners has already tried to bring Bae home.

Detained journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were freed after Bill Clinton visited in 2009, and as that same Korean think-tank expert told the AP, a high-profile visit from a U.S. official would give Kim some bragging rights in his new term. Except there already was a high-profile visit from U.S. officials regarding Bae, and it didn't work out so well: Remember when former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson and Google's Eric Schmidt went to North Korea in January, taking photos with North Korean students pretending they knew how to use the Internet? Yeah, that was supposed to be all about Bae, but lost in that shuffle was the reality that North Korean officials did not allow Richardson to meet with Bae. Reuters reported that Richardson delivered a letter for Bae, but it's unclear if it ever got in the hands of the prisoner.

The State Department isn't playing prisoner swap this time around.

Here's what Foggy Bottom spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters in Washington:

You all are aware of the history and how this has happened in the past with U.S. citizens ... But what we're calling for and we're urging the DPRK authorities to do is to grant him amnesty and to allow for his immediate release, full stop.

The way that's phrased (especially with the "but") sounds like State is veering away from the way they've dealt with North Korea in those prisoner situations over the last four years. If anything, that's a more forthright and more immediate request than what happened with Lee and Ling. In that case, North Korean media reported a narrative with Clinton and the U.S. asking for forgiveness

Clinton expressed words of sincere apology to Kim Jong Il for the hostile acts committed by the two American journalists against the DPRK after illegally intruding into it ... Clinton courteously conveyed to Kim Jong Il an earnest request of the U.S. government to leniently pardon them and send them back home from a humanitarian point of view.

That same type of narrative doesn't look to be the same if the State Department is asking for "full stop" compliance, and doubly hard to walk back if North Korean propaganda outlets like KCNA now have a vested interest in reporting on some sort of non-existent State Department bargaining. Right now, North Korea is just making an example out of Bae, which isn't going to help get him home any sooner.

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