North Korea arrests American; continues shelling near disputed border

Analysts and diplomats are scratching their heads as to why North Korea continued firing artillery shells into its disputed maritime border with the South for the second day in a row.

Kim Ju-sung/Yonhap/Reuters
Caves with coastal artillery are seen at the North Korean village of Jangyeon, where North Korea's military units are stationed, as Chinese fishing boats move by, in this photo taken from South Korea's Baegnyeong island on Thursday.

North Korea has arrested an unidentified American for illegally entering its territory, reports said Thursday, as Pyongyang kept up its military provocations by firing artillery shells for a second day near a disputed maritime border with the South.

As recently as last month, observers were cautiously optimistic about reduced tensions between the United States and North Korea. Now, with the arrest and the continued artillery firing, Pyongyang's mixed messages have analysts and diplomats scratching their heads. "North Korea 'has been blowing hot and cold,'" Wi Sung Lac, the South’s chief nuclear envoy, told the Monitor.

North Korea's state-run news agency reported that the unidentified American had illegally crossed into North Korea from China on Monday, and was now being interrogated, according to The New York Times. The American is now the second man in Pyongyang's custody, the Times said, after another was seized last month for also illegally crossing into the reclusive country from China.

He [the first detained man] is believed to be Robert Park, an American missionary who South Korean activists say crossed the frozen river border on Christmas Day carrying a letter urging the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, to shut down prison camps.
Washington has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and is working through the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to seek consular access to Mr. Park, 28.


Pyongyang for the second day fired artillery rounds from coastal batteries near the so-called "Northern Limit Line," a de facto maritime border between North and South Korea waters (see the Monitor's coverage here.) Pyongyang does not recognize that line, and insists on a different maritime border (see map from Stratfor.)

South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper cited experts speculating that the firing was motivated by several factors, including a bid to get a US response to Pyongyang's January 11 offer of peace talks to formally end nearly 60 years of hostilities.

Experts say the North is simply trying to attract attention from the United States with a view to expediting discussion of a peace treaty, as well as seeking to boost the morale of the military and punishing South Korea for perceived threats to the regime. ... "Pyongyang wants to stress the need for a peace treaty with provocations around the NLL, which is a product of the armistice," commented Yang Mu-jin, a professor at Kyungnam University.

The Korea Times said that North Korea appeared to be pursuing a "two-track" strategy. It's using military provocations to pressure the US to come to the bargaining table, while at the same time moving forward with North-South talks on joint projects such as the operation of the Gaeseong Industrial Complex in the North.

Despite the provocative action, another North Korea watcher said inter-Korean talks over the operation of the joint Gaeseong Industrial Complex in the North would take place as planned. "Since Pyongyang appears to be taking a two-track approach, it will not dare to ruin inter-Korean relations,'' Prof. Kim Yong-hyun at Dongguk University said. Last week Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to hold working-level talks on the operation of the complex next Monday.

Last month, observers had turned more optimistic on US-North Korean relations. Tensions has somewhat eased since former US President Bill Clinton made a surprise visit to North Korea last August and won the release of two imprisoned US journalists (who were also arrested on the grounds of crossing illegally into North Korea). On that visit he dined with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Key North Korean officials have since visited the US, and US special envoy Stephen Bosworth spent two days in Pyongyang early last month.

In an interview with, a website run by the Council on Foreign Relations, Evans Revere, an expert on northeast Asia and former US diplomat, said there were small but encouraging signs after Bosworth's visit that North Korea might be willing to rejoin six-party talks on abandoning its nuclear program, a key US demand.

It was very interesting in terms of Bosworth's press conference to hear him say that the North Koreans expressed an understanding of the value and the need for the Six Party Talks and the importance of the implementation of past agreements. While he didn't get the whole loaf, at least he seems to have gotten some North Korean buy-in to the existence of that loaf. Let's see where they take it from here.


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