Connect to share and comment

Pyongyang's negotiating tactics

Release of US journalists fuels anger over South Koreans still held captive.

A North Korean soldier keeps guard behind a border fence separating the North Korean town of Sinuiju and the Chinese border city of Dandong, Aug. 4, 2009. (Jacky Chen/Reuters)

SEOUL — The months of watching and waiting in agony finally came to an end when the two U.S. journalists who had been sentenced to 12 years in North Korean prisons stepped off a chartered plane with former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

For over a four-month period, the families of the two reporters watched in horror as Pyongyang slowly but in an orderly fashion made public the detainment, indictment and sentencing of the two women for trespassing and committing “grave crimes.”

The families of South Koreans held in the North have endured similar agony, but the fate of their relatives appears far less certain. Though most South Koreans remained indifferent to the news about the release of the American journalists, it did rekindle concern, and at times anger, over the four fishermen and a South Korean man still detained in the North.

Indeed, the visit by Clinton was not entirely unexpected. After nearly two decades of dealing with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s “brinkmanship diplomacy,” an eventual outcome was predicted: A special someone from the U.S. would make a trip to negotiate their release — it was just a matter of when and whom. It is not expected, however, that the South Koreans will receive the same treatment.

One of the captives, known to the public as Mr. Yoo, was a factory manager at the joint-Korean industrial park located in Kaesong, North Korea. He had worked on the site since 2008 and was detained for allegedly criticizing the North’s leadership.

Unlike with the two American journalists, Pyongyang has so far not made public the status of the South Korean, and Seoul has failed to broker the rights to meet with Yoo.

Also of concern are four fishermen, whose boat was towed to a North Korean port by patrol guards, after they mistakenly crossed into North Korean waters with a faulty GPS system almost a week ago.

In the past it has taken up to 18 days for the North to send fishing vessels back to the South, but editorials in some of the South dailies blasted Pyongyang for holding five South Korean citizens without informing Seoul of their status.

“What kind of hostage scheme does Kim (Jong Il) have in mind this time?” one of the editorials in South Korea’s conservative Chosun Ilbo read. “The North held the U.S. journalists at a hotel and let them call their family back home. But Yoo has been denied the right to see anyone. It gives special treatment to American hostages while trampling on the basic rights of South Koreans.”

South Korea’s television news agency YTN reported on the possibility that the North may expel Yoo from the country on Aug. 15, Korea’s Independence Day, but no official reports have emerged from the government yet.