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South Korea Sidelined in U.S. Journalist Drama in Pyongyang

New America Media, News Report, Peter Schurmann Posted: Jun 10, 2009

Editor's Note: U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee got a harsh sentence in North Korea but at least they got a trial. A few days after Ling and Lee were apprehended, a South Korean citizen was also picked up. Seoul has not been able to figure out where he is. Peter Schurmann reports from Seoul.

SEOUL -- Despite a heavier-than-expected sentence for two U.S. journalists being held in North Korea, their eventual release remains a distinct possibility, as such a move would carry multiple benefits for the communist state. The price of that freedom, however, is whats keeping everyone in the region on pins and needles.

Euna Lee, 32, and Laura Ling, 36, were detained on March 17 along the North Korea-China border while reporting for San Francisco-based Current TV on human trafficking in the region. On Sunday they were sentenced to 12 years hard labor in one of the countrys notorious gulags.

Observers anticipate the two women will be used as bargaining chips by Pyongyang to draw Washington into direct bi-lateral dialogue. What would they seek through such engagement? The answer seems likely to involve leader Kim Jong-ils youngest son and appointed successor.

Little is known about Kim Jong-un, 25, apart from the fact that he was educated in Geneva and has no military or revolutionary qualifications, prompting doubts about his ability to rule and speculation abroad of a possible internal power struggle.

Reports suggest that the elder Kim may have in fact credited the Norths May 25 nuclear test to his son in order to boost his standing among the nations military elite. Ha Tae-keung, president of Open Radio for North Korea, which broadcasts for two hours a day into North Korea from Seoul, told the Asia Times that there is some struggle inside regarding the inheritance issue. He points out that given the fathers declining health he reportedly suffered a stroke in August last year -- the aging leader appears to be in a hurry to ensure a smooth transition.

Seouls defense minister said as much in a message delivered to South Korean troops Wednesday. "Bent on his effort to engineer a hereditary power succession, Kim Jong-il is pushing ahead with nuclear development, missile launches and moves to raise tension," Lee Sang-hee was quoted as saying by South Koreas Yonhap News Agency.

The detention of Ling and Lee also raises tensions with the United States and invites direct dialogue with Pyongyang, whether through the dispatch of a special envoy perhaps Al Gore, co-owner of Current TV, or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has made similar trips to Pyongyang in years past or talks at North Koreas New York mission.

For Pyongyang, the end goal of such talks, experts agree, would be recognition of the North as a nuclear power, turning the regions security situation on its head and greatly enhancing the young Kims position vis--vis the military. While this is a line that Washington wont cross, such bilateral engagement opens the possibility of other concessions to the North while isolating the United States from its allies in the region, including South Korea.

Both the United States and North Korea are trying to separate out issues. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has repeatedly said that the detention of the two women is not connected to the larger nuclear issue, an unrealistic view from the perspective of North Korea, which has long sought to segregate the interests of powers in the region.

The last thing Pyongyang wants is consensus among the other five members to the six-way nuclear disarmament talks, which appears more likely since China agreed to a draft resolution imposing U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang. Seoul recently joined a U.S. led anti-proliferation campaign, a move Pyongyang derided as an "act of war."

Will such "hostility," as the North perceives it, from neighboring powers like China and South Korea jeopardize Ling and Lee's release? It's possible. So while everyone is looking to punish the North for its recent nuclear test and missile launches, it is not inconceivable that the U.S. will reach out with offers to win the release of the two journalists, in a sense rewarding Pyongyang for its belligerence. Their detention thus serves the dual purpose of drawing Washington into dialogue as well as keeping the regional powers out of step with each other and in line with the North's long-term survival strategy.

Seoul has no leverage in this issue. In fact, it's been working hard to secure the release of a South Korean citizen detained in March from the jointly run Kaesong industrial complex in the North. And unlike the two Americans, no trial or even access to the worker has been granted. Seoul has no idea where he is.

Meanwhile, inter-Korean relations are at their lowest in decades and right now the two big questions are the fate of the Kaesong complex and whether or not there are going to be any military clashes. North Korea warned a few days ago that its nuclear arsenal was not only for defensive purposes.

So while there is sympathy for the plight of Ling and Lee among South Koreans in general, there is also a sense that the two women are more likely to be released than the South Korean worker as Pyongyang stands to gain far more from such a move.

Exactly when it will decide to do so is another question. As in everything the North does, timing is essential to maximize political benefit.

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