SEOUL, South Korea, March 31, 2009 — -- The detention of two American journalists in North Korea is likely to continue for at least several more weeks, according to North Korea analysts in Seoul.
Pyongyang will use the opportunity as a negotiating card but will eventually release them depending on the speed of progress in talks with, and attention from, the United States.
"We can clearly see that North Korea has begun to use those reporters as a bargaining chip," said Moo-Jin Yang, professor at the Graduate School of North Korean Studies, referring to Pyongyang's statement today that it plans to indict and put the two women on trial for "suspicions of illegal entry and hostile acts."
Euna Lee and Laura Ling, reporters for the San Francisco-based Current TV founded by former Vice President Al Gore, were detained by North Korean guards at the northern border with China March 17.
Reports have said they crossed the frozen Tumen River into North Korean territory while covering a story on North Korean refugees and human trafficking.
North Korea to U.S.: Talk First, Negotiate Release Later
"Their leaders are well aware of the fact that the Obama administration will have no choice but to put priority on negotiating the release of those two women, because they are American citizens," said Hak-Soon Paik, a senior fellow at Sejong Institute. "Those talks could only be dealt with in a bilateral situation and that's exactly what Pyongyang has been striving for when negotiating missiles and nuclear programs."
North Korea's demand for bilateral talks with the United States had been repeatedly turned down. Instead, the disablement of Pyongyang's nuclear programs in return for international aid has only been discussed within the framework of the six-party talks that have included South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.
"They won't waste this opportunity. Their message is, if you want these reporters, pay attention to the issues out here first [vis-a-vis Afghanistan and Middle East]," said Young-Tae Jeung, a senior researcher at Korea Institute for National Unification.
North Korea would carry out the legal trial under its national law, possibly including charges of spying, to increase leverage in future negotiations.
"But the process will be carefully planned in accordance with the customs of international humanitarian law," said Myung-Sub Han, a lawyer specializing in North Korea and unification law at Lex Professional Corp. "This official announcement of indictment is just a procedure to make the issue into a realistic negotiating card."
Will North Korea's Test Launch Bring Sanctions?
North Korea is expected to test launch what it claims is a satellite as early as Saturday but neighboring countries have suspicions that it is actually a long-range missile in disguise.
Washington; Seoul, South Korea; and Tokyo have warned about the risk of sanctions through the United Nations if Pyongyang charges ahead with the test. North Korea threatened to drop out of the six-party nuclear talks if discussions of more sanctions are held.
On Monday, the U.S. and South Korean governments backed down from their previous harder stance, saying there are no plans to shoot down the rocket. Japan initially prepared to intercept, but has also stepped back saying it would shoot it down only if debris from a failed launch hit its territory.
North Korea's relations with the outside world had already hit bottom during the previous Bush administration, which categorized it as part of the axis of evil.
On the other hand, the South Korean government at that time maintained a pro-North sentiment providing massive amounts of aid and economic assistance. But a decade of rosy inter-Korean relations quickly dwindled when the new conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak took office last year.
Now, many analysts say, the dictatorial leader Kim Jong-Il is extremely insecure over the feasibility of maintaining control of his regime especially after suffering from heart problems last year.
"His country has failed economically; his people are starving to death; and [tens of thousands] are crossing the borders risking lives into Manchuria and China," said Jung-Hoon Lee, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University in South Korea. "So when you are not doing your job, you are bound to feel insecure."
Sources close to Pyongyang have also noted that during the American elections in December, North Koreans expressed hope that Obama would improve relations between the two countries.
But "honestly on this trip of mine, they expressed disappointment of nothing really happening," said Dr. Han Park, an ABC News consultant and professor at the University of Georgia, who just returned from Pyongyang last weekend.
According to Park, the communist leadership sees the test launch of the communications satellite and improving relations with the United States as two separate issues.
"They cannot see the linkage between this testing of their rocket and testing the Obama administration." To the insular state, it is no more than pursuing "predetermined rational goals" and demonstrating to their people that their science and technology is making a historical breakthrough.
"The North Koreans have been conditioned in that way for such a long time they are sort of immune to world public opinion and how Americans and South Koreans think of them," Park said. "And this satellite issue clearly demonstrates that."
Jessica Kim contributed to this report.