North Korea announced its verdict in the trial of two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, for illegal entry and "hostile acts" on June 8th. The outcome of the trial and the subsequent decisions of the North Korean leadership obviously have weighty implications for the families themselves. North Korea's handling of the issue will also tell us whether the North Koreans are playing the same old game by utilizing crisis escalation to draw in the United States diplomatically or whether North Korea's inward focus on politics surrounding the leadership succession has fundamentally changed the game in terms of dealing with Pyongyang.
Under the rules of the old game, the DPRK would hold American trespassers for questioning for a few months, then present them and their families with a sizable "hotel bill" and pave the way for their release. In some cases, such as the cases of Bobby Hall and Evan Hunziger in the mid-1990s, high profile figures such as former Congressman Bill Richardson were involved in their release.
According to this approach, the two American journalists who stumbled into North Korean hands on March 17th are potential trump cards that North Korea can use to ease tensions following a string of actions that have escalated the crisis with the newly-elected Obama administration. The journalists would provide North Korea with a safety release valve for reducing tensions and drawing the United States into a coveted high-level direct dialogue, effectively marginalizing the six party process and opening the way for United States to once again provide significant concessions and humanitarian assistance to North Korea.
But Obama administration officials suggest that they are intent on not playing the same old game with North Korea, that the North Koreans can't sell Yongbyon to a new U.S. administration for the third time, and that a new administration can't afford to enter endless rounds of fruitless negotiations with North Korea in which they face North Korean salami tactics of dividing other parties while providing minimal concessions.
If this is the same old game, a prudent counter-response might be to deal with the North Koreans on a humanitarian basis through unofficial channels while minimizing official contacts and managing the return of the journalists by sending the lowest-profile person necessary to secure the journalists' return. This would separate the humanitarian issues of securing the journalists' release from the political challenge of securing a UN Security Council resolution "with teeth" designed to send the signal that the new administration is not willing to play the same old game. But this effort will run into difficulty because nothing is separated from politics in North Korea.
What if the North Koreans are signaling a new game, in which they are aggressively fast-forwarding their drive to secure nuclear and missile capabilities as a fait accompli, both as a signal to the outside world not to interfere with North Korea's domestic politics and to secure a successful leadership succession while showing Kim Jong Il's power, even while his health continues to decline? Or, what if a transition of sorts has already occurred, in which decisions are now being handled primarily by a xenophobic North Korean military leadership?
If this is the case, North Korea's top leaders are all inwardly focused, unwilling to pursue conciliatory measures toward external actors, and likely to prioritize internal considerations over a worsening external environment (as suggested by North Korea's handling of international food assistance and the Kaesong Industrial Complex), even at direct tangible cost to the economic benefit of the regime. Moreover, South Korea has its own hostage dilemma, in which an employ of the Hyundai Asan company responsible for managing the Kaesong Industrial Complex has been held incommunicado since late March. Under these circumstances, American efforts--either through official or unofficial channels--to secure the release of the journalists are likely to end badly and their stay in Pyongyang could be extended for some time.
In the old game, the Obama administration faces a contradiction. On the one hand, the administration in its desire to set new terms for interaction with North Korea, might take actions that result in delays in the release of the journalists in order to set a new tone and pattern of interaction with a North Korean leadership that increasingly realizes that time is not on the side of Pyongyang. Both sides test each other, but North Korea uses the safety valve provided by high-level contacts in the course of releasing the journalists. To ensure that the new administration's parameters and priorities are clearly understood in Pyongyang, there is speculation that the Obama administration would utilize an private, high-level envoy to authoritatively deliver a message to Pyongyang regarding expectations, but there would be no bilateral negotiations with North Korea without North Korea's return to the six party talks.
In the new game, North Korea's management of its own internal politics takes time. There is little that the international community can do through negotiations, and combined pressure might not only speed the inevitable but also help shape the choices of a North Korean successor regime in a sufficiently stark manner that cooperation will be perceived as the only option. But it becomes impossible to provide any real assurances about the fate of the two journalists.
In the course of either side's efforts to change the game, the risks of miscalculation are high: North Korea's mishandling of the journalists' case could constitute a near-permanent setback in U.S.-DPRK relations if the issue becomes enflamed by public emotions along the lines of the effect on public sentiment in Japan of diplomacy surrounding Japanese citizens abducted to North Korea in the 1970s. Likewise, the persistence of such an issue would could become a protracted burden for the Obama administration not unlike the Iranian hostage crisis, which had a debilitating impact on the Carter administration's image in foreign affairs.