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North Korea's Harsh Verdict

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
June 9, 2009


North Korea announced its verdict in the trial of two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, for illegal entry and "hostile acts" on June 8th. The outcome of the trial and the subsequent decisions of the North Korean leadership obviously have weighty implications for the families themselves. North Korea's handling of the issue will also tell us whether the North Koreans are playing the same old game by utilizing crisis escalation to draw in the United States diplomatically or whether North Korea's inward focus on politics surrounding the leadership succession has fundamentally changed the game in terms of dealing with Pyongyang.

Under the rules of the old game, the DPRK would hold American trespassers for questioning for a few months, then present them and their families with a sizable "hotel bill" and pave the way for their release. In some cases, such as the cases of Bobby Hall and Evan Hunziger in the mid-1990s, high profile figures such as former Congressman Bill Richardson were involved in their release.

According to this approach, the two American journalists who stumbled into North Korean hands on March 17th are potential trump cards that North Korea can use to ease tensions following a string of actions that have escalated the crisis with the newly-elected Obama administration. The journalists would provide North Korea with a safety release valve for reducing tensions and drawing the United States into a coveted high-level direct dialogue, effectively marginalizing the six party process and opening the way for United States to once again provide significant concessions and humanitarian assistance to North Korea.

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