North Korea is holding two U.S. citizens as “prisoners of war,” regime officials have told Americans lobbying for their release, as the months drag on with no word about the pair.
During this period of Kim Jong Un’s military launching a stream of increasingly longer-range and more reliable missiles and conducted its fifth nuclear test, there has been no word on Otto Warmbier, a business student at the University of Virginia, and Kim Dong-chul, a South Korean-born naturalized American citizen, since they were separately sentenced to years of hard labor in North Korean prisons in March and April respectively.
“I am certain that North Koreans will keep Otto Warmbier and Kim Dong-chul until after the U.S. election,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former North Korea analyst for the CIA who is now at Bower Group Asia, a consultancy.
“American prisoners are one of the few bargaining chips North Koreans has,” she said, and there is “zero incentive” for the North Koreans to release these Americans at this point. “Why waste it now with the Obama administration when there appears to be little progress that can be made in terms of either returning to talks or easing of the sanctions in place?”
In recent years, the regime has made a habit of detaining U.S. citizens and using them as bargaining chips. This has followed a familiar pattern: arrest and harsh sentence, then release after a high-profile American flies to Pyongyang to get them out.
These visits are portrayed in North Korea’s media as signs of the isolated state’s strength–a weak Washington coming begging to Pyongyang.
Because the United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang represents American interests there. Swedish diplomats have not been granted access to Warmbier since March 2, John Kirby, spokesman for the State Department, said. Kirby declined to comment on whether the Swedish diplomats had seen Kim Dong-chul since his arrest and conviction.