American detainees in North Korea pose challenge as busy US works on strategy of patience

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TOKYO — A U.S. citizen arrested in North Korea for allegedly tearing up his visa and seeking asylum will go before the North's Supreme Court this weekend in a trial almost certain to end quickly with a guilty verdict. Along with two other Americans detained in the North, the young defendant says he has but one hope — for a senior U.S. statesman to come and get him out.

So far there don't seem to be any volunteers.

North Korea's state media has announced that Matthew Miller, in custody since April, will be put on trial on Sunday. The punishment could range from forgiveness and deportation to a lengthy sentence in prison with hard labor.

A trial is also expected soon for Jeffrey Fowle, who entered the North as a tourist but was arrested in May for leaving a Bible at a provincial club. The third man is Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who is serving a 15-year sentence for alleged "hostile acts."

The U.S. has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, to Pyongyang to seek the freedom of the detainees, but without success. High-level visits have become the norm for securing the release of past detainees.

Former President Bill Clinton came in 2009 to free a couple of jailed journalists. Jimmy Carter made the trip in 2010 to secure the release of Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegally crossing into the country to do missionary work. In 2011, the State Department's envoy for North Korean human rights managed to successfully intervene in the case of Korean-American businessman Eddie Yong Su Jun.

But finding a suitable middleman is no easy task, with the Obama administration immersed in bigger global crises and doggedly pursuing a policy of "strategic patience" with the North, which essentially means not getting drawn into engagements that might be seen as bowing to North Korean pressure.

"North Korea's strategy may have worked in the past, but its brinkmanship with the American hostages is occurring against the backdrop of so many other crises that North Korea cannot use this issue to elevate itself as Washington's primary concern," said Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Washington D.C.-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

Snyder said Washington would find it hard to accept if the North linked releasing the Americans to the broader negotiations about its nuclear weapons program.

While having a senior U.S. statesman take detainees home has been used by the North to enhance the prestige of its leadership on the domestic stage, he said, "it causes headaches for sitting administrations, who do not want to risk losing control of the policy by having outsiders to their administration step into the picture.

"Under these circumstances, a high-level official visit is unlikely because it would entail excessive political risks," he said. "The best option would be for a senior former official with close ties to the Obama administration, but not a former president, to be accepted by both sides for this limited 'rescue mission.'"

The North has not officially demanded a senior representative visit to release the Americans, but it has made no secret of its growing frustration with Obama's cold-shoulder treatment.

"It is ridiculous for the Obama administration to continue pinning hope on the bankrupt strategic patience policy," the state-run Korean Central News Agency said in an editorial last month, adding that U.S. efforts to isolate the North have failed to stop it from becoming "a political power, military power and a nuclear weapons state."

"Foolish, indeed, are those who are handling the U.S.-DPRK policy," it said, using the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

In the meantime, the three Americans caught in the middle say they are running out of hope.

During a brief interview with The Associated Press in Pyongyang last week, Miller said he has been in touch with his family in Bakersfield, California, by phone and has been allowed to meet with the ambassador of Sweden, who handles U.S. consular affairs in Pyongyang because the U.S. has no embassy there.

The 24-year-old said he wrote a letter to Obama more than a month ago but has not received a reply.

"I do not want to go to prison," he said. "I will not find out the charge until I go to trial, so I just do not know."

Fowle, a 56-year-old equipment operator for the city of Moraine, Ohio, said he was originally detained at a large tourist hotel in Pyongyang and later moved to what he described as a suite-style room in a guest house, which he did not name. He said that because of his absence from work, his family will soon run out of money.

In lieu of a solution from the United States, Fowle said his wife, a hairstylist from Russia, made a written appeal on his behalf to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He said the Russian government responded that it was watching the situation.

Bae, serving his sentence at a special labor camp outside Pyongyang, suggested both men can expect a brief trial.

"The actual trial was only about an hour, an hour and a half at most," Bae, who is 46, said of his own experience, also in an interview with the AP in Pyongyang last week. "It was very quickly done." He said that by the time his case got to court "the only chance I had was asking the mercy of the government."


Talmadge is the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/EricTalmadge

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