North Korea Grants Interviews With American Detainees: To What End?

Sep 2, 2014
Originally published on September 2, 2014 7:14 pm

Two U.S. news organizations, CNN and the Associated Press, were granted interviews with three men detained by North Korean authorities. To learn more about why, and what North Korea hopes to gain from the publicity, Melissa Block talks with Georgetown professor Victor Cha, the former director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.

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The uncertain fate of American prisoners being held by North Korea has also been brought to national attention this week. Two U.S. news organizations, CNN and the Associated Press, were granted surprise interviews with three detained men, giving a glimpse into their world - just a glimpse. North Korean officials were in the room for each of the brief interviews. Kenneth Bae has been held the longest - nearly two years. The Korean-American was convicted of so-called hostile acts and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. And as he told CNN, his health is your deteriorating because of the work he's forced to do.


KENNETH BAE: Condition in labor camp is I'm working eight hours a day six days a week and working agricultural work to other hard labor.

BLOCK: So what does North Korea hope to get from this publicity? Victor Cha joins me to talk about that. He is a professor at Georgetown University and former director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council with a focus on North Korea. Professor Cha, welcome to the program.

VICTOR CHA: It's my pleasure.

BLOCK: And what do you make of the timing here? Why these three interviews now?

CHA: Well, I think the North Koreans clearly wanted to get everybody's attention here in the United States and around the world. These are three individual cases of Americans who have been detained with no apparent connection between any of them except that they're all Americans. And to pull them all together and coordinate these three interviews to be aired on a national holiday in the United States makes it pretty clear that the North Koreans wanted to get our attention.

BLOCK: And apart from getting our attention, is the expectation that these prisoners can be used as bargaining chips? And if so, what does North Korea want?

CHA: Well, you know, these are great questions. And we, Melissa, ultimately don't know. One of the guesses is that they're trying to poke a finger in America's eye. The United States and South Korea just finished last week a set of annual military exercises that the North Koreans never like. At the same time though, putting these people on display may also be a message that there's a interest in getting them out of the country.

BLOCK: We heard the youngest detainee, 24-year-old Matthew Todd Miller, say, this interview is my final chance to push the U.S. government to help me. What has the U.S. position been on that?

CHA: The official U.S. position for the one case where there has actually been a judgment made by the courts in North Korea - the case of Kenneth Bae - has been to ask for amnesty and release based on humanitarian and medical grounds. For the other two, there haven't been trials yet. And I think that's one of the reasons why those two, particularly the young fellow, sounded so concerned - because they have no idea what they're going to be tried for.

BLOCK: If you were to be advising the current administration as a former NSC staffer, what would you tell them? What should they do about these men held prisoner by North Korea?

CHA: I think the most logical step now would be to send the special envoy for bilateral talks with North Korea. His purpose could be to go and bring these folks out, but at the same time have a separate discussion about some of the other issues between the U.S. and North Korea whether that's missiles, their nuclear tests or the military exercises.

That would seem to me the more logical choice than to continue to reinforce a president when we're sending former heads of state or other high-level individuals that are largely political figures and not really related to the negotiations.

BLOCK: Is the counterargument to that, though, that that lends credibility - legitimacy to the North Korean regime - that this is exactly what they want - one-on-one talks?

CHA: Unfortunately, I think it does. And that's why these choices are not easy. And ultimately, they have to be decided by the people in the Oval Office - by nobody else. But I think it is the responsibility of every administration to ensure that Americans are not held hostage in one of the worst human rights abusing countries on the face of the planet. So it's a tough choice. But in the end, you have to bring these Americans back.

BLOCK: Professor Cha, thanks very much for talking with us.

CHA: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's Victor Cha of Georgetown University. His most recent book is "The Impossible State: North Korea, Past And Future." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.