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.
As with the case of the U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested at the China-North Korea border for trespassing, there have been no channels available to verify the North’s claims about Yoo.
North Korean watchers believe the two cases were linked to the ensuing tension-ratcheting events that unraveled on the Korean peninsula: the firing of a long-range rocket, a nuclear test and a series of missile launches.
Using a brinkmanship strategy, Pyongyang is trying to lure the United States, the sole power it believes is capable of granting it legitimate status, to the negotiating table.
By North Korean standards, the two reporters, working for San Francisco-based Current TV, went through a relatively speedy interrogation and trial. Pyongyang made sure that the outside world was alerted to all the procedures, sending out simultaneous dispatches from its state-mouthpiece KCNA in English and Korean.
Although Yoo was detained barely two weeks after Ling and Lee, he is said to still be under interrogation. Media reports in early June speculated that Yoo had been transferred from Kaesong to Pyongyang, but South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said it cannot confirm the reports.
The lack of attention Pyongyang is giving to Yoo does not mean his capture was accidental. At this point, it seems North Korea is trying to find the right time to use him.
“If this incident was unforeseen, it should have been resolved by now. But Yoo has been held for almost three months now. The prolonged nature of it shows that the North has the intent of using him as a political chip,” Moon said.
No one from the South has been allowed to visit Yoo and confirm his safety, unlike Swiss diplomats who were able to meet the American reporters.
Other than condemning North Korea for its “unjust and inhumane management” of the situation, the South Korean government has been sitting on its hands.
The reality is, it has no cards to play against the North. After coming to power in 2008, the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration cut off humanitarian aid that once was used as a tool to protest actions by the North deemed inappropriate.
The family members of Yoo have kept quiet on the issue, in contrast to the Ling and Lee families, who appeared on major U.S. broadcasters shortly before the trial of the two women.
“We’re just watching and waiting anxiously for something to come out,” a spokesperson at Yoo’s company said.
More GlobalPost dispatches on North Korea:
Watch for action during crabbing season in the waters off the Korean peninsula
Time to encourage Japan and South Korea to go nuclear?
More GlobalPost dispatches on South Korea:
South Koreans mourn late president
Creating a women-friendly Seoul