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ANALYSTS' VIEW - North Korea frees U.S. journalists; what next?

(Reuters) - Former U.S. President Bill Clinton left North Korea on Wednesday with two American journalists whose release he secured in a meeting with the hermit state’s leader, possibly opening the way to direct nuclear disarmament talks.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton (seated L) and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il (seated R) pose for a picture in Pyongyang in this photo released by North Korean official news agency KCNA August 4, 2009. REUTERS/KCNA

Following are comments from experts on what North Korea’s pardon of the journalists might say about Pyongyang’s stance on negotiations with the international community and what might happen next.

TADASHI KIMIYA, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF TOKYO

“It’s hard to believe that North Korea released the journalists just on humanitarian grounds. It probably had something to do with a package deal with the United States, to resolve the issues of denuclearisation and normalisation of ties.

“There will likely be some movement related to negotiations on these two issues. Negotiations may have to take place between the U.S. and North Korea on a bilateral level in parallel with the six-party (nuclear disarmament) talks.

“North Korea won’t return to the six-party talks without an excuse and it may not even say it is returning to talks. But I think Clinton may have tried to persuade North Korea to take part in the six-party talks in some form in return for negotiations on a bilateral level.

MASAFUMI YAMAMOTO, HEAD OF FX STRATEGY JAPAN, RBS, TOKYO

“The latest incident has not been much of a factor in the market as the situation regarding worries about a future change in (North Korea’s) leadership and brinkmanship diplomacy remains unchanged.

“Financial markets have in the past reacted somewhat to North Korea’s nuclear test or long-range missile launch, and they remain wary of uncertainty associated with the health of Kim Jong-il. But we know that missile launches have been an empty threat, not an actual attempt to attack the United States, Japan or South Korea. So what the markets are actually afraid of is a failed launch or failed nuclear test ... Such a situation would prompt selling of the won and the yen, as well as the Japanese and South Korean stocks.”

ZHANG LIANGUI, CHINESE EXPERT ON NORTH KOREA AT CENTRAL PARTY SCHOOL IN BEIJING

“The North Koreans have rejected the six-party talks and they won’t give up their nuclear plans; both were important components of U.S. policy, so to cave to them would show the U.S. had failed.

“Bilateral talks can’t solve the problem, because they leave out other countries.

“I think the U.S. should resolutely reject bilateral talks. They won’t be accepted by other East Asian countries. If these bilaterals touch on regional security issues, at the very least Japan and South Korea would be dissatisfied.

“If China is sidelined, it would also have an adverse reaction.”

NARUSHIGE MICHISHITA, ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, SECURITY AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES PROGRAMME AT NATIONAL GRADUATE INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES IN JAPAN

“I think there will be a three-pillar approach, as we saw at the end of the Bill Clinton administration. The three pillars are tackling nuclear arms, missile issues and then moving toward a peace treaty (between the United States and North Korea). It is unclear what exactly the United States actually offered at the meeting, but I think Clinton at least tried to find out where North Korea stands on those issues now.

“North Korea wants to stabilise its relationship with the United States before it chooses its new leader and wants to do so quickly, given the health problems of Kim Jong-il. The United States probably wants to keep North Korea from falling into a dangerous situation and thus wants to engage at an early stage to control the situation.

“For the time being, decisions will likely be made between the United States and North Korea, but it will eventually lead to the resumption of six-party talks. Although North Korea says it won’t return to six-party talks, it knows it needs the scheme to get financial assistance or energy aid.”

BRUCE KLINGNER, KOREA EXPERT AT THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION IN WASHINGTON

“Clinton’s visit has roiled the North Korean policy waters beyond their already tumultuous state. There are great uncertainties over North Korean and U.S. intentions, escalating the risk of miscalculation, confrontation, and crisis.

“The Obama administration should make clear that while freeing the U.S. journalists removes a potential friction point between the U.S. and North Korea, it does not serve as a substitute for Pyongyang’s full compliance with U.N. resolutions 1874 and 1718. Washington should continue to insist that North Korea express its clear commitment to abide by all of its previous six-party talks pledges to completely and verifiably abandon its nuclear weapons programmes.

Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby in Beijing and Yoko Nishikawa in Tokyo

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