Courtesy of Myunghee Bae/Reuters
US Christian missionary Kenneth Bae is seen in this undated family photo. Bae was sentenced in May to 15 years of hard labor under North Korea's 'hostile acts' law.
Issei Kato/Reuters
Robert King, US special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, is surrounded by reporters after a meeting with Japan's Minister-in-Charge of the Abduction Issue and head of the national public safety commission Keiji Furuya (not in picture) in Tokyo August 28, 2013.

North Korea looks ready to talk about detained US citizen

Today the US diplomat is slated to arrive in Pyongyang to secure the release of Kenneth Bae, the Christian missionary and tour guide who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Robert King was slated to arrive today in Pyongyang to seek the release of a US citizen sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea, a move that could open the way for more cooperative ties between North Korea and the United States.

The US State Department said in a press release that Ambassador King had been invited by the North Korean government to make the first official visit of a senior US official to the country in two years. He is scheduled to stay overnight and leave North Korea on Saturday. At the time of writing there has been no confirmation of his arrival.   

Analysts say North Korea’s decision to discuss the release of Kenneth Bae could be a signal that Pyongyang is seeking better ties with Washington and recognizing that holding a US citizen impedes any improvement on that front. 

"For North Korea, Mr. Bae is an asset, but he’s also something of an irritant. North Korea knows that if they want to make any progress with the US on any other issue, they need to find a way to remove him,” says John Delury, a Korea expert and professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.  

Bae has been imprisoned since November 2012 after he was arrested while leading a tour group in North Korea. In May he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor under North Korea’s “hostile acts” law. Bae’s family say he is diabetic and that while incarcerated his health has drastically deteriorated. They therefore appealed indirectly to North Korea to release him on humanitarian grounds.  

After months of high tensions throughout the late winter and spring, culminating with a nuclear test in February and the sudden closure of the jointly operated Kaesong Industrial Complex in April, North Korea has made moves toward rapprochement of late. On Aug. 14, the Koreas agreed in principle to restart operations at the idle industrial park and several days later Pyongyang accepted Seoul’s proposal to hold reunions of family members who were separated by the Korean War, which haven’t taken place since 2010.   

Analysts point out that North Korea regularly alternates between phases of aggressive and conciliatory behavior in foreign relations and caution that these friendlier moves of late don’t necessarily indicate any change in the country's basic positions.

“Their track of being coercive and belligerent is not sustainable, so they’ve now switched to a different approach in pursuit of their goals. And those goals remain the same – recognition as a nuclear power, lifting of sanctions, normal economic relations with more partners,” says Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia deputy project director for the International Crisis Group.

In particular, North Korea may have invited King in a possible effort to hold direct dialogue with Washington. But disagreements over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons could scuttle any such moves.

“Washington’s firm precondition for dialogue is sincere steps by Pyongyang showing it is serious about denuclearization," says Duyeon Kim, senior non-proliferation and East Asia Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “so the North’s latest charm offensive may not immediately result in direct dialogue.”

Ms. Kim adds, “Should US-North Korea nuclear talks resume, a top priority must be Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment, which is the ultimate game changer.”

Since 2009, a total of six US citizens, including Bae, have been detained by North Korea.

American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were arrested while reporting along the border with China in 2009. They were released after former President Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea and met with late leader Kim Jong-il. Christian activists Robert Park and Aijalon Mahli Gomes were both apprehended in North Korea after walking across that same border in separate incidents. North Korea released Mr. Park in 2010; Mr. Gomes left North Korea that same year with former President Jimmy Carter, who had traveled to Pyongyang in a private capacity to seek his release.

In May 2011, on this last visit to North Korea, King secured the release of US citizen Eddie Jun Yong-su, who had been imprisoned there for six months. Mr. Jun was arrested on unspecified charges; he is believed to have attempted covert missionary work while officially in North Korea on business trips.

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