THE prolonged detention of US helicopter pilot Bobby Hall by North Korea may already have done grave damage to delicate United States-North Korean relations. And it may have increased chances of trouble in Congress for the recent $4 billion nuclear accord between Washington and the Pyongyang regime.
Leaders of the incoming GOP legislative majority have long complained about the nuclear deal, which calls for a suspension of North Korea's nuclear-development program in return for oil and new proliferation-resistant reactors. North Korea's heavy-handed treatment of the Hall incident could lead to Republican demands to scrap the pact when lawmakers convene next week.
``A number of us in Congress have been skeptical about this nuclear agreement, and this incident simply adds fuel to that fire,'' incoming chairman of the House International Affairs Committee Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R) of New York, said Wednesday.
North Korea's motives in not quickly releasing the downed airman remain a mystery to US officials and analysts. One theory holds that Chief Warrant Officer Hall has become a pawn in a power struggle within North Korea itself, with hard-line generals demanding his incarceration while civilians aware of the value of relations with the West press for his release.
Another theory is that North Korea is using the helicopter pilot as a means to try to shift relations between the US, North Korea, and South Korea. The US has been forced to negotiate directly with Pyongyang over Hall's fate, rather than using the long-standing armistice commission set up to handle Korean Demilitarized-Zone incidents.
North Korea has long wanted to scrap the armistice commission, which includes South Korean representatives, in favor of a direct peace treaty with the US. But the US is highly unlikely to agree to such a slap in the face to South Korea, analysts say.
Whatever North Koreans are trying to accomplish, ``their delay in releasing Hall is going to backfire,'' says C.J. Lee, a professor of Pacific studies at California's Claremont McKenna College.
As of this writing, Hall remained in North Korean custody. State Department official Thomas Hubbard was in Pyongyang attempting to negotiate Hall's release. A congressional source indicated that it was understood the talks were not going well.
US officials were not sure whether the release by North Korea of an alleged confession by Hall, in which he did not admit to spying but begged forgiveness for ``criminal action,'' was a good or bad sign. The hope in Washington was that airman's release would be forthcoming and that the document, which included a reference to Hall's waiting wife and children, was designed to save face.
The ``confession'' contained phrases that a US airman would be unlikely to string together, according to reports from the region, including spellings and place names used only by Pyongyang. It called his incursion a ``grave challenge'' and a ``grave infringement,'' for instance - two terms used in North Korean propaganda.
It isn't clear a release now would calm some of the GOP opposition to the North Korean nuclear deal. Many in Congress thought the airman would be home for Christmas, per indications given to Rep. Bill Richardson (D) of New Mexico, who negotiated the release last week of the body of Hill's flying partner, David Hilemon, killed when their copter went down.
``If they want a relationship with us, he should have been freed days ago,'' said Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, incoming Senate majority leader, Wednesday.
Mr. Dole said that he himself was not yet ready to scrap the US-North Korea nuclear deal. But he and other lawmakers indicated that it is extremely unlikely Congress would give its approval to shipments of oil for North Korea, per the accord, while Hall remains in custody.
A senior State Department official told reporters the administration itself has been careful to ``make no explicit link'' between Hall's return and progress on the nuclear pact. The administration does not want to give Pyongyang an excuse to back off from its pledge to stop producing weapons-grade nuclear material.
New North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is facing an international incident at a difficult time. He is having to prove himself to his own officials when he may not have yet fully seized the reins of power, notes John Goulde, a professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.