North Korea denies US prisoner Kenneth Bae is bargaining chip


Passersby watch a local television broadcast in Seoul on May 2, 2013 showing a picture of Kenneth Bae (R), a Korean-American tour operator detained in North Korea. North Korea said on May 2 it had sentenced Bae to 15 years' hard labor for 'hostile acts', stoking tensions with the United States.



North Korea has denied using American prisoner Kenneth Bae as a negotiating tool with which to force concessions from the US.

Washington has called for the immediate release of Bae, also known as Pae Jun Ho, who on Thursday was sentenced to 15 years' hard labor for unspecified crimes against Pyongyang.

"Some media of the US said that the DPRK [North Korea] tried to use Pae's case as a political bargaining chip. This is a ridiculous and wrong guess," a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry told state media.

He also dismissed speculation that, as in previous cases, North Korea would use its prisoner to secure a visit from a high-profile US envoy. Pyongyang "has no plan to invite anyone of the US as regards the issue," the spokesman insisted.

When the US sent its diplomats in the past, North Korea showed "generosity" by freeing American prisoners on humanitarian grounds, the spokesman said. 

Bae's case, however, "proves that as long as the US hostile policy toward the DPRK remains unchanged, humanitarian generosity will be of no use in ending Americans' illegal acts."

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Analysts in Seoul are in disagreement over whether North Korea is bluffing, or whether it will actually use the opportunity to make an example of Kenneth Bae.

Two experts told GlobalPost that the North may have painted itself into a corner with the recent war rhetoric, and that it could feel the need to back up its words somehow. This would help explain the country's decision to remove its 53,000 workers from the Kaesong industrial complex last month, even though the project brings in the highest wages in the country in much-needed foreign currency.

In the same manner, North Korea would be at its most rational by inviting an American dignitary, portraying the visit as a diplomatic coup, and releasing Bae as part of an unspoken deal.

But North Korea may feel the need to show the world its seriousness about the recent bluster, using Bae as an example.

In the case of Kaesong, Pyongyang has seen its efforts to win concessions from South Korea shot down.

The North has demanded that the South cease all "hostile acts and military provocations," including its joint drills with the US, as a precondition for reopening the complex. Seoul on Monday dismissed the demands as "completely incomprehensible and unfair."

Geoffrey Cain contributed to this report from Seoul.