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American's espionage confession: A North Korean ploy?

A Korean-American was paraded in front of North Korean media, confessing to acts of espionage, barely a week after another American was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor by the regime in Pyongyang.

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    A man, who identified himself as Kim Dong Chul, previously said he was a naturalised American citizen and was arrested in North Korea in October, attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 25, 2016.
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A Korean-American detained in North Korea confessed to spying for South Korea, according to official news sources in Pyongyang Friday.

Kim Dong Chul was arrested in October and claimed to be a naturalized American born in South Korea. He is the latest American to be paraded in front of media in North Korea, apparently confessing and apologizing for his transgressions.

Observers explain this pattern as a part of the regime’s strategy in combating its international isolation and seeking to gain tactical advantage.

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“North Korea guards its sovereignty jealously, and its system of political control means that many areas of personal behavior that we regard as freedoms are regulated in North Korea,” explains Scott Snyder, director of the Council on Foreign Relations US-Korea Policy program, in an email interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“Americans held in North Korea have also risked becoming political pawns in a hostile US-DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] relationship as North Korea seeks high-level envoys in return for American prisoner releases.”

Indeed, this comes little over a week after another American, Otto Warmbier, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for “the serious offense against the DPRK he had committed, pursuant to the US government's hostile policy toward it, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist,” as North Korea’s state news agency described it.

Mr. Kim, for his part, told those assembled at a media presentation in Pyongyang that he had been working with South Korean intelligence to bring about the downfall of the regime in North Korea, as well as trying to spread religious ideas.

He described his acts as “shameful and ineffaceable," apologized and appealed for mercy, following in the footsteps of those Americans before him who have been detained by the regime, confessed to similar crimes – and then have often claimed, following their release, that they were coerced into making such statements.

But Kim’s media performance represents just one facet of Pyongyang’s tangled relationship with the outside world.

In response to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, in January, followed by a long-range rocket launch in February, the United Nations imposed further sanctions on the regime, which even China, Pyongyang’s key ally, supported.

In reaction partly to the sanctions, partly to the annual US-South Korean military exercises taking place beyond its southern border, the North announced Friday that it had carried out its own live-fire artillery drill, practicing the destruction of South Korea’s presidential residence.

“The largest-ever exercise was aimed to demonstrate once again the might of the Paektusan army to bring the most miserable doom to the US imperialists and the South Korean puppet group of traitors through the above-said striking action for turning into a sea of flames Seoul.”

And while North Korea is generally regarded as a rogue regime in the West, a dangerous and unpredictable nuclear-armed state, which has already demonstrated its willingness to sell nuclear technology, agreement on its pariah status is not universal.

“There is no real democracy in the international system, but there is a feudal order where the big powers decide the fate of the smaller nations,” writes Ranjit Kumar Dhawan in The Korea Times, a South Korean paper. "Only the big and powerful countries have the right to develop and have monopoly over the nuclear weapons and also use them, as it happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945."

Moreover, while many do subscribe to the opinion that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and ambitions should be curtailed, the question of whether sanctions represent the optimal path to progress is a complex one.

“The act of imposing a trade boycott or similar sanctions on a country for its misbehavior has long been used as a substitute for war,” writes the Monitor’s Editorial Board. “Sanctions, while hostile, can be a tool for peace. Yet they come with an article of faith: that the people in a targeted country also want better behavior from their leaders and will accept the hardship of sanctions as both necessary and an opportunity.”

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