By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 26, 2009
TOKYO, March 25 -- Two American journalists detained last week by North Korean soldiers are likely to become bargaining chips for North Korea in its feuds with the outside world, according to analysts and politicians in South Korea.
Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters working for Al Gore's San Francisco-based Current TV, were seized at 3 a.m. March 17 after walking from China across the shallow Tumen River into North Korea, according to a report in JoongAng Ilbo, a newspaper in Seoul.
The newspaper, citing intelligence sources in the South Korean government, said the two women have been moved to Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, where they were being interrogated as possible spies.
The United States has been assured by North Korea that the journalists will be treated well, State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said Tuesday. He added that although the U.S. government was aware of news reports saying the two had been charged with espionage, the North Korean government has told Washington only that they are being held on charges of having crossed "illegally" into the country.
The North Korean government has made one public statement about the journalists.
"Two Americans were detained on March 17 while illegally intruding into the territory" of North Korea by crossing its border with China, said a report Saturday by the official state news agency. "A competent organ is now investigating the case."
No matter what charges are made against the journalists, North Korea will probably use them -- and the timing of their release -- as leverage in negotiations with the United States and other countries over aid, nuclear weapons and, most urgently, the planned test launch in early April of a long-range missile, several analysts said. A U.S. official Wednesday confirmed reports that North Korea had moved the missile onto the launch pad.
"They do become bargaining chips," said Andrei Lankov, a professor of North Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul. The two journalists interviewed Lankov shortly before they traveled to the North Korean border.
"North Korea will send them home, but it will not happen quickly," Lankov said. "The North Koreans want to show the world that illegally crossing their border will not be tolerated and they want to squeeze political and financial concessions from the United States."
In recent weeks, North Korea has alarmed its neighbors by announcing plans to launch, sometime between April 4 and 8, what it calls a "communications satellite." Japan, South Korea and the United States have all protested the launch, calling it "provocative" and describing it as a pretext for testing a new long-range ballistic missile that might be able to hit Alaska.
"This provocative action . . . will not go unnoticed and there will be consequences," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday while on a visit to Mexico.
The announced flight plan of the launch would send it high over northern Japan, where the government has warned that it might try to shoot down any missile that threatens to hit its territory. U.S. military officials have said they would also be ready to shoot down the missile if it appeared to present a threat.
North Korea, meanwhile, has warned that it would go to war if the missile, which it says is part of a peaceful research project, is destroyed by hostile fire. If the United States seeks U.N. sanctions against North Korea after the missile launch, Pyongyang threatened this week, North Korea would unilaterally cancel a 2005 agreement to abandon nuclear weapons in return for aid and security guarantees.
Koh Yu-whan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, called the capture of the two Americans an "unexpected" new negotiating card in the missile dispute.
"North Korea is likely to make the most of this opportunity, especially prior to launching their rocket," Koh said. "This new card can be used for multipurpose tactics."
Koh said the release of the journalists is highly unlikely until after the missile launch, as the North will probably want to use custody of the two women to put pressure on the United States to soften its complaints.
Other North Korea watchers in Seoul said that North Korea could try to use the release of the journalists as a way to improve rocky relations with the United States.
"If North Korea offers to release the two reporters safely and quickly, it would be interpreted as a friendly gesture to the American public," said Hong Jung-wook, a ruling party lawmaker and member of a committee for improving Korean relations.
In the 1990s, at least three Americans were held in North Korea for extended periods after accidentally crossing the border. All three were eventually released after negotiations.
Special correspondent Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.