No sooner did CNN report that it was given access to three Americans being held in North Korea than many Americans began thinking they had seen this movie before.
North Korea was up to its cloak-and-dagger best, leading a CNN crew whose members thought they were going to meet a top government official instead to supervised interviews with Kenneth Bae, Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Edward Fowle. Each interview lasted five minutes, and all three were similar, with the prisoners saying their treatment was “humane” and appealing for a U.S. envoy to intervene on their behalf. All three also acknowledged their guilt, despite the fact that not all of them even know the charges against them. Mr. Fowle’s offense was the heinous act of leaving a Bible in his hotel room.
The three men — whom North Korea likes to think of as prisoners but who are more accurately described as hostages — are correct in believing that the United States has a strong policy of protecting its citizens. They hope it steps in to help them.
Bill Richardson, who has visited North Korea and is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, thinks North Korea wants to talk. “They’re sending a signal, saying ‘We’re ready to bargain for the three hostages,’ ” Mr. Richardson told CNN.
Perhaps North Korea, which generally gets the world’s attention by launching missiles in the vicinity of its neighbors or threatening to escalate its nuclear program, is trying a slightly less offensive tack. Its leadership might, as Mr. Richardson speculates, feel slighted because the world’s attention has been elsewhere — on ISIS and Ukraine. Using hostages as pawns isn’t original, but it can tug at the heartstrings. What’s more, for the U.S., negotiating for hostages with a sovereign nation isn’t quite the same as negotiating with terrorists.
North Korea surely knows that holding the hostages does little for its image — one already tainted by credible reports of widespread starvation, gulags and forced labor. Giving the hostages up in exchange for negotiations — or even for international respect, however short-lived, would seem much better than continuing to hold people whom the rest of the world considers victims.
Another round of negotiations would hardly be promising, in part because the United States justifiably insists that North Korea do more than temporize on the subject of its nuclear program.
Unfortunately, that’s no more likely now than it has been for the last decade or more.