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North Korea allows rare interviews with detained Americans. Why now?

Peter FordThe Christian Science Monitor

If you want them here they are – now come and get them.

That was the message North Korea was sending when it allowed three American prisoners to talk to media from the United States on Monday and urge Washington to send a high-level emissary to negotiate their freedom.

“This is a release dance,” says John Delury, an expert on North Korean affairs at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. “North Korea would like these people out, but they expect something in return.”

In an unusual move, Pyongyang allowed CNN and the Associated Press to interview two men detained earlier this year, Matthew Miller and Jeffrey Fowle, and Kenneth Bae, who is serving a 15 year sentence for illegal Christian missionary work.

All three, who appeared to have been coached, made similar pleas for Washington to send a dignitary to get them out of jail. Mr. Fowle suggested that former US President George W. Bush might make a suitable envoy.

“My situation is very urgent,” Mr. Miller told CNN. “Very soon I’m going to trial and I would directly be sent to prison. This interview is my final chance to push the American government into helping me.”

Washington has repeatedly offered to send Robert King, its envoy on North Korea human rights issues, to seek a pardon for Mr. Bae and the other US detainees, but without success.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to be hoping for a more high profile dignitary to lend his government a measure of legitimacy and possibly to renew direct dialog between Pyongyang and Washington.

While Mr. Bush might seem an unlikely candidate to plead for mercy from Kim Jong-un, he would be following in the footsteps of his predecessors. Bill Clinton secured the release of two US journalists in a 2009 visit to Pyongyang, and in 2010 Jimmy Carter went there to win pardon for another US citizen who had been detained for illegal entry.

The North Koreans “are expecting a high level emissary and they want a political channel out of the visit, to have their leader sit down with the American and have a broader conversation,” says Prof. Delury. Monday’s interviews were “a way to demand a high level visitor and to say they are serious about improved relations.”

The US government has refused to enter into direct talks with North Korea until it takes steps towards denuclearization and halts ballistic missile tests, as numerous United Nations resolutions have demanded.

The last set of talks, over several months in 2011 and 2012, ended with parallel statements in which Pyongyang pledged to end nuclear and missile tests and Washington offered food aid. That supposed agreement collapsed a few weeks later when North Korea used a ballistic missile in an attempt to launch a satellite.

Domestic political battles 

The three American prisoners are pawns in the complex diplomatic relationship between North Korea and the United States. They also appear to be caught up in North Korea's domestic politics.

Bae, a missionary, and Fowle, who reportedly left a Bible behind, contravened a strict prohibition on Christian proselytizing in North Korea. Miller is reported to have torn up his North Korean visa on arrival in the country last April and appealed for asylum before being arrested for unruly behavior.

All fell foul of the security forces, whose prime responsibility is to maintain order in the communist hermit state. Other state institutions, however, such as the Foreign Ministry – keen to improve North Korea’s international standing – and the Economy Ministry, which wants to attract tourists and foreign investment, are embarrassed by the arrests, according to Delury.