Americans Kenneth Bae, Matthew Miller and Jeffrey Fowle are all imprisoned in North Korea on different charges. It’s unclear what it will take to secure their release. Visits from high-level officials have worked in such situations in the past. David Greene of NPR spoke with Stephen Bosworth, who served as U.S. special representative for North Korea policy during President Obama’s first term. Some excerpts from their conversation:
NPR: So what is your take on the tactics being employed by North Korea? They presented the Americans to the media in carefully staged interviews. What are they up to?
Bosworth: Well, first I think we don’t know very much about what they’re really up to – we have suspicions. But dealing with this government in North Korea is not easy. It’s very complicated, and we frankly don’t know much about their decision-making process under the current leader Kim Jong Un. We understood his father a little bit, but with him we’ve had much less experience.
NPR: So they appear to be using these Americans as bargaining chips.
Bosworth: That’s right. I think this is a way for them to try to get our attention. They’ve clearly been trying to get the attention of the Obama administration to reengage in some form of dialogue over the last several months. And so far the administration has not been willing to do that. They’ve been insisting that North Korea has to, in advance, demonstrate that it’s serious about its commitment to denuclearization.
NPR: And is there any reason to believe it’s possible to negotiate with the current leadership there? You have some experience dealing with them on these issues.
Bosworth: Yeah, I think it’s always possible to negotiate. It depends on what your objective is and what their objective is. As I said, in this case I think they want to get our attention. I feel very sorry for these people who have been detained in North Korea. It’s not a pleasant place to be if you’re a prisoner, but it’s not clear to me that the North Koreans are at this point prepared to negotiate seriously on this. And I don’t know who they would find acceptable to go there. In the past, that sort of high-level visit has worked, but it’s probably some political risk.
NPR: Given all that, what’s your sense of the U.S. strategy to secure the release of its citizens at this point?
Bosworth: Well, I think we’ve tried to send Bob King, the special representative for human rights in North Korea. He was ready to get on a plane in Tokyo and go there and presumably bring them back when, for reasons that are not clear to me at least, the North Koreans cancelled his trip. This was four, five months ago.