North Korea experts say U.S. can negotiate reporters' release

The Sacramento BeeJune 12, 2009 

California journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee — sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for "hostile acts" against North Korea — could be home by the end of the year.

Experts on the world's last Stalinist state said U.S. officials historically have been able to negotiate the release of citizens and soldiers held by North Korea. The price generally has been public apology and the promise of humanitarian aid and other political concessions.

The timing is ripe for a good will gesture by North Korean leaders since their rocket and nuclear tests this spring brought heated calls for international sanctions.

"Given all the provocations they've committed, they realize the tensions with the outside world — even with erstwhile ally China — have reached a breaking point," said Dr. Chaibong Hahm, North Korea specialist at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica. "I think they would be looking for some way to defuse the tension, and releasing the journalists might do that."

Scholars and activists describe negotiations over the release of the California journalists as a no-limit poker game between North Korea and the United States. They say U.S. negotiators will have to put something on the table without looking as if they're rewarding bad behavior.

Hahm, who will brief Congress today on North Korea, said the country's recent flexing of military muscles was designed to shore up internal support for a transfer of power from ailing supreme leader Kim Jong Il to his 26-year-old third son Kim Jong Un – a move bound to create political upheaval.

The underground nuclear test May 25 plays perfectly into North Korea's image as a victim — a "shrimp among whales" that has survived Japanese and U.S. imperialists.

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