On Friday, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, the two Current TV reporters sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea, marked the four-month anniversary of their arrest for crossing the China–North Korea border while filming a documentary on human trafficking. But for the first time in a while, their families are hopeful because Han S. Park, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, traveled to North Korea at the beginning of July and discussed the case directly with the regime. Last week he told the Associated Press that North Korean officials might be willing to release the reporters in exchange for a "remorseful acknowledgement" from the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hasn't delivered any apologies yet, but she has tweaked her message; last Friday she called for "amnesty" for the first time, a departure from previous demands that the journalists be released for humanitarian reasons. NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul spoke with Park about what he learned in North Korea. Excerpts:
What surprised you about the information you gleaned on the journalists' detention?
I don't know how much the State Department knew about the whereabouts of the reporters prior to my trip, but I went in there with the basic understanding that they had probably been sent to a prison, if not a labor camp. So when I went there and had a meeting with credible high-ranking officials, I first inquired as to where they are being held. They are probably in Pyongyang, and I have every indication that they have been treated well in a guesthouse.
How do you know that the people you met with actually knew about the conditions of the journalists' confinement?
They're ministerial-level officials, so they are closely connected to the center of power. I visited three times last year and once this year. I think I know North Korea well enough to make an assessment.
Could you describe what guesthouse life would be like?
It's a very decent and luxurious situation, by any standard. No hotel in North Korea is as good as that. Guesthouses are reserved for VIPs there to see the government. If they're still there, it's a clear indication that North Korea wants to resolve this without sending them to prison. They're reporters: the North Koreans would never want them to witness and reveal the conditions of life in a labor camp.
Realistically, do you think they could be transferred to a labor camp?
There is more than one voice in North Korea. The hardline military leadership may want [the government] to carry out the sentence. Civilian diplomats likely want to resolve it the other way. If the U.S. government is timid about responding to their demand for an apology, then the military will have the upper hand.
Hillary Clinton changed the way she talks about this case.
Previously, she said the charges [against the reporters] are "baseless." But "amnesty" presumes the admission of guilt. That makes the reporters criminals. Especially in North Korea, it's face-saving for a sovereign state.
Did you coordinate your visit with the State Department?
I can't tell you about that. The State Department said I made the trip as a private citizen, and I'll leave it at that.
What else did you talk about?
We discussed the possibility of a direct bilateral channel between Washington and Pyongyang. The North Koreans told me consistently that they're not going to return to the Six-Party Talks. From the beginning, they thought those talks were insulting. If the U.S. government gave them a bilateral negotiation channel now, it would neutralize the situation. That's ironic for me, as an analyst; as bad as the incident has been, these journalists may turn out to be a factor in facilitating negotiations.