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For North Korea captives, two different stories

Detention of South Korean factory worker likely to drag on as North holds on to a potential bargaining chip.

North Korean workers prepare clothes at a factory of South Korean apparel maker Shinwon company in the inter-Korean industrial park in Kaesong, just a few hundred yards north of the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone that divides the Korean peninsula, May 26, 2005. (Lee Jae-Won/Reuters)

SEOUL — People outside of North Korea fear for the lives of two American journalists who were arrested by border guards of the secretive state and sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for conducting "hostile acts." What many do not know is that the country has also been holding a South Korean factory worker, known as Yoo, for nearly as long.

North Korea detained all three prisoners in March. The bottom line, analysts say, is that North Korea wants to use both the Americans and the South Korean as bargaining chips for the future. But it has deliberately chosen different ways of dealing with the cases, out of a desire to negotiate directly with the United States and keep South Korea on the sidelines.

Yoo's case is likely to remain unresolved for some time given the political calculations of the Kim Jong Il leadership and the lack of leverage held by South Korea's hard-liner Lee Myung-bak. The North believes South Korea, unlike the United States, does not have the power or influence to lessen the country's isolation in the international arena.

The man spirited away by North Korea was a factory manager at the Kaesong industrial complex in the North. He had been working at the site since May 2008, spending his weekdays in the compound and weekends back in the capitalist South. He was detained March 30 for allegedly criticizing the North’s leadership and encouraging a North Korean worker to defect to the South.

The Kaesong industrial park was born as a symbol of peace and cooperation between the two Koreas in 2003. South Korean companies were to benefit from cheap labor, and North Korea would receive cash, in return for rent and wages, that would go directly to the leadership.

Yoo was detained at this site, situated about 45 miles north of Seoul. Shortly after announcing his capture, Pyongyang raised issues about the current rate for land use and salaries of North Korean workers. In a series of inter-Korean talks that followed, the North demanded South Korea pay 31 times the current $16 million for land use and boost payment for factory workers to $300 a month from $55.

With toughened United Nations sanctions against the North cutting off its foreign currency supply, it is easy to believe that the cash-strapped state will not close down the industrial park, despite its threats.

However, analysts warn that speculations about a leadership succession in the hermit kingdom should not be disregarded. Anything that is viewed as a destabilizing element for solidarity in the country could be removed, they say.

“From the North’s point of view it’s this: If they’re going to have money coming in from outside, they want it to be in huge amounts, and if not, they’re saying they can give it up altogether,” said Moon Hong-sik, a North Korea expert at Chung-ang University.

The North considers the industrial complex a window for capitalist influence to filter into the country through the North Korean workers and their families, Moon said. Yoo was detained on those very charges.