Posted by: Ihlwan Moon on June 8, 2009
At first blush, North Korea’s move on June 8 to sentence two U.S. journalists to 12 years in labor prison appears Pyongyang’s escalation of confrontation with Washington. But if you consider the past pattern of the reclusive nation’s diplomatic posturing, the excessively harsh penalty paves the way for negotiations aimed at releasing the two.
Few North Korea watchers in Seoul believe the two journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, will serve out their term. Against the backdrop of international efforts to slap sanctions against North Korea to punish for its May nuclear test and recent missile tests, it would be hard to imagine that the U.S. will sit down at a negotiation table with communist officials from Pyongyang anytime soon. Yet the sentencing could open the way for Washington officials to seek contacts with North Korea.
From North Korea’s point of view, the two reporters from California-based Current TV could serve as a bargaining chip in its standoff with the international community, particularly the U.S. By holding the two female journalists hostage, North Korea might believe it could force Washington to think twice before putting the North back on its list of terrorism-sponsoring nations. More importantly, efforts to secure the release of the two women likely will lead to talks North Korea has so badly wanted with the U.S.
North Korea has also taken a legal step to make it easy to grant a political pardon quickly. By letting its highest court sentence the two American journalists, Pyongyang prevented them from appealing against the verdict. That’s because the top court’s decision is the final legal ruling. Now, if the North could squeeze out any concession that it seeks from the U.S. through negotiations, a political pardon is always possible.
Putting pressure on Washington, North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said the country’s Central Court found Ling and Lee guilty of a “grave crime” against the nation, and of illegally crossing into North Korea. It also handed out the maximum penalty allowed by the North’s laws – 12 years of reform through labor.
The U.S. response: “We are deeply concerned by the reported sentencing of the two American citizen journalists by North Korean authorities and we are engaged through all possible channels to secure their release,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement.