Jailed journalists complicate Obama's approach to N. Korea

The administration wants to keep the journalists’ plight separate from any discussion of the North’s rogue nuclear program. But that will be difficult.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A man watches a broadcast about two detained American journalists at the Seoul Railway Station in South Korea. North Korea's top court sentenced the journalists to 12 years in a prison Monday.

Monday's conviction of two American journalists in a North Korean court and their sentencing to 12 years of hard labor for unspecified "grave crimes" will complicate President Obama's pursuit of a tougher policy against the rogue nation.

The Obama administration has taken a gradually more aggressive stance toward North Korea since Pyongyang detonated a nuclear device on May 25. Given that Mr. Obama had previously been calling for a dialogue, "the only logical response for the administration is to shift to ... at least show North Korea that there are things the US and the world can do to hurt them," says Chaibong Hahm, a regional expert at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.

This was reflected over the weekend in statements that were several notches more severe than previous pronouncements from Washington.

Obama said Saturday: "We are not intending to continue a policy of rewarding provocation."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that "significant and effective action against the North Koreans [is needed] now" to stop the nation from solidifying its nuclear gains and "spark[ing] an arms race in Northeast Asia."

But the sentencing of the two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were found guilty of illegally entering the country, will add a layer of complexity to the administration's dealings with North Korea.

Secretary Clinton said Sunday that she wanted to keep the issue of the journalists separate from the North's nuclear ambitions. But analysts say that will be a tough task.

"You can't keep these things separate, especially in the case of democracies like the US ... where cases like that of these journalists become preoccupying human rights and humanitarian issues," says Geoffrey Kemp, a diplomatic expert at the Nixon Center in Washington.

It is understandable that the Obama administration would hope to keep the two issues separate. If Pyongyang were to release the journalists now, it "would be a real PR coup," says Mr. Hahm of RAND.

"If they released these two, they would have shown a kinder face to the world than the provocative and dangerous side its critics are emphasizing," says Hahm.

That scenario suggests that the North is likely to try to use the journalists as a bargaining chip. Yet a few experts point to a different possible motivation: The North is trying to suppress any attempt to shed light on the sensitive issue of North Koreans fleeing the country.

"I do not think this is directly related to the nuclear crisis," says Victor Cha, who holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The North Koreans are trying to use this case to demonstrate their resolve against perceived efforts by the international community to draw attention to their refugee problem."

With North Korea in the middle of a leadership transition, "the threat of North Koreans voting with their feet is perhaps the ultimate threat to the regime," says Mr. Cha.

Washington, meanwhile, is trying to maintain pressure on Pyongyang for its recent nuclear and missile tests. Obama is pressing for a multinational, coordinated response to show Pyongyang that the international community is serious.

Among the measures being considered:

-Tightened economic sanctions.

-An anticipated Security Council resolution.

-Intercepting the North's arms shipments by sea and air.

-Returning North Korea to the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.

But Clinton acknowledges that doing that would not be easy. For one, North Korea would have to be found guilty of recent sponsorship of an act of terrorism, something most experts say would be time consuming and very likely ultimately fruitless.

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