Pyongyang's negotiating tactics

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.

The foreign ministry spokesman, however, did say that Clinton had conveyed a message to the North saying that it should release the South Korean citizens held captive. "We are hoping there will swift progress on our citizens and the fishing boat issue," the spokesman said, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.

Analysts agree that Yoo’s case, as with the two American journalists, will be used for political purposes, but that it is uncertain how. For the North Korean leader, negotiations with the U.S. and trying to open doors for bilateral talks hold more priority than dealing with his South Korean counterpart.

Kim Jong Il’s meeting with the former president also proved that he continues to hope for one thing, as he always has. Though his leadership has called the U.S. and its leaders warmongers, imbeciles and an endless stream of other insults available in the English language, Kim ironically still sees America as the only hope to put a definite end to its problems. “Because of the American journalist case, North Korea was able to use it to pressure the U.S. Now it’s showing it that it’s willing to change from a framework of confrontation to one of dialogue,” said North Korean expert Yang Moo-jin at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies.

Instead of having to deal with four other countries and their political issues in return for disarmament, North Korea ideally wants to bargain with the only power that it believes matters for providing financial assistance and security to its leadership, Yang said.

Pyongyang knows that American troops will not pull out of South Korea, and that it will continue to be estranged from the international financial system, unless it normalizes relations with the U.S.

“North Korea wants to sit down with the U.S. shoulder to shoulder as a nuclear state and engage in nuclear disarmament talks,” Yang said.

By pardoning the two journalists, Kim was most likely hoping to open the door to further negotiations with Washington. Washington has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to the six-party talks but with the possibility for bilateral talks with Pyongyang within that framework.

“North Korea wants to sit down with the U.S. shoulder-to-shoulder as a nuclear state and engage in nuclear disarmament talks,” Yang said. However, Washington has repeatedly reiterated its commitment to the six-party talks but with the possibility for bilateral talks with Pyongyang within that framework.

For the families of the factory manager Yoo and the fishermen, in the meantime, they appear to have no choice but to wait until Pyongyang decides on how to use its political bargaining chips from the South.