North Korea to put two American tourists on trial. Why now?

Pyongyang says there is evidence that the two American tourists committed 'hostile acts.' This follows a flurry of contradictory North Korean rhetoric and a weekend testing of short-range missiles. 

Ahn Young-joon/AP
A man watches a TV news program showing file footage of a North Korean rocket carried during a military parade at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, June 29, 2014. North Korea fired two short-range missiles into its eastern waters Sunday, a South Korean official said, an apparent test fire that comes just days after the country tested what it called new precision-guided missiles. The writing on the screen reads "North Korea fired 2 missiles presumed to be scuds."

North Korea announced today that it will put two detained Americans on trial, the latest move in several days of mixed signals coming from the reclusive country.

A report Monday by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) stated that investigations had been carried out into the two cases, and that there was enough evidence to move ahead with indictments. The two Americans, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller, both traveled to North Korea on approved tourist trips. 

North Korea has claimed that Mr. Miller tore up his visa and requested asylum shortly after arriving in Pyongyang in early June. Unnamed diplomatic sources told Japan’s Kyodo news agency that Mr. Fowle left a Bible behind in his hotel room in North Korea in April. Today's KCNA report announcing that the two men will be tried did not specify their alleged crimes, instead using the vague term “hostile acts.”

The Pyongyang regime also made headlines this weekend after conducting test launches of short-range missiles, in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions that prohibit missile and nuclear activity in the North.

Then on Monday, in a twist of temperament, North Korea also used its official media to call for a cessation of military hostilities with South Korea starting this week. Today’s conciliatory gesture was at odds with a number of aggressive statements made in recent months, including calling South Korean President Park Geun-hye a “prostitute” and labeling the forthcoming Hollywood comedy "The Interview," which includes a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jung-un, an "act of war." 

North and South remain technically at war since combat ended in the 1950-53 Korean War. While they have not had a serious confrontation since 2010, when the North torpedoed a South Korean naval vessel and shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing four people, skirmishes are somewhat common along their Yellow Sea maritime border, and militaries on both sides regularly exchange hostile rhetoric about what they would do if the other attacked. 

This recent flurry of activity by North Korea may be related to the upcoming visits by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who will visit Seoul from July 3-4, and is scheduled to then travel on to Pyongyang. The trip will be Mr. Xi’s first visit to the Korean peninsula as president of China. In the past, Chinese leaders have traditionally visited North Korea before South Korea as a way of demonstrating the strength of the alliance between Beijing and Pyongyang. 

Xi's shift in approach could be intended to send a message to Pyongyang. “By visiting South Korea first, China can use the trip as a way of showing North Korea that South Korea-China relations are becoming stronger and more cooperative,” says Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. 

China remains North Korea’s only major ally, and Pyongyang relies on China for aid and trade. But as China has reformed and opened its society, North Korea’s stubborn insistence on developing nuclear weapons, as well as its refusal to enact meaningful reforms, have strained China’s patience. 

Also, China is South Korea’s main trading partner, and commercial exchange between them has increased in recent years. In spite of their developing trade relations, Seoul and Beijing remain at some distance over how to handle North Korea and its nuclear aspirations. The South Korean government has for years lobbied its Chinese counterpart to do more in pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear program, and Park and Xi are expected to discuss that issue this week in Seoul.

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