The U.S. and its Asian allies are considering tougher responses to North Korea’s latest nuclear test, but the North still has a few bargaining chips.
North Korea is holding two American citizens, which Pyongyang refers to as “prisoners of war,” reports The Washington Post.
Pyongyang arrested Otto Frederick Warmbier, a 21-year-old business student at the University of Virginia, in January for allegedly stealing a political poster from a hotel during a tour of the North Korean capital. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for his crimes.
Kim Dong-chul, a 62-year-old South Korean-born naturalized American citizen, was detained by authorities in January on espionage charges. He was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.
While foreign detainees are often used as leverage, it is unlikely that North Korea will waste this strategic opportunity on the Obama administration. So far, Pyongyang has yet to present any indication that it is ready to openly negotiate for the release of its two American prisoners.
The next administration will reevaluate America’s North Korea strategy. “Perhaps Pyongyang believes that it can open a negotiating window by signaling a willingness to release Warmbier and Kim,” Brookings Institution expert Jonathon Pollack told WaPo.
At the moment, though, North Korea remains unwilling to cash in its chips. “There appears to be little or no interest in Pyongyang in talking about the terms of a possible release,” a person involved in negotiations told reporters. “They don’t appear to be interested in using them as hostages.”
“Until there is some recognition from very high up among the elite that pardoning this person has some definite benefits for the state, there is really no incentive for them to recommend that,” North Korea analyst and professor at Troy University Daniel Pinkston explained to WaPo.
Because the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, Swedish diplomats often operate on America’s behalf. Pyongyang has not allowed Swedish officials to see Warmbier since he was sentenced in March. Whether or not diplomats have been given access to Kim is unclear.
Since 1996, North Korea has arrested and detained at least 13 American citizens for illegally entering the country, illicit religious activities, engaging in acts harmful to the North under the guise of tourism, insulting Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, and other crimes.
North Korea is also holding Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim for attempting to use religion to destroy the state. He was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes. Warmbier, Kim, and Hyeon are reportedly the only three Westerners in detention in the reclusive North Korean state.
When the next president considers his/her strategy towards North Korea, Kim and Warmbier will definitely need to be factored into the equation. Unless North Korea starts to really feel pressure in the coming months, Pyongyang probably will not trot these prisoners out until early next year.
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