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How North Korea may be using U.S. detainees as 'bargaining chips'

By Holly Yan, Will Ripley and Brian Todd, CNN
updated 11:00 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • North Korea could try to use the detainees as leverage for nuclear talks
  • The regime surprised CNN by presenting the three men for interviews
  • All three said they have signed statements admitting guilt
  • Analyst: North Korea may want to use the 3 detainees in a "package deal"

(CNN) -- The setup was bizarre.

North Korean officials whisked a CNN team away in a van, purportedly to go meet with a high-ranking government official.

Hours later, they arrived in the capital and were presented with three Americans held captive in the reclusive country.

Alan Gross, at right with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, has been in Cuban custody since December 2009, when he was jailed while working as a subcontractor. Cuban authorities say Gross tried to set up illegal Internet connections on the island. Gross says he was just trying to help connect the Jewish community to the Internet. Former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have both traveled to Cuba on Gross' behalf. On December 17, Gross was released from Cuban prison. Alan Gross, at right with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, has been in Cuban custody since December 2009, when he was jailed while working as a subcontractor. Cuban authorities say Gross tried to set up illegal Internet connections on the island. Gross says he was just trying to help connect the Jewish community to the Internet. Former President Jimmy Carter and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson have both traveled to Cuba on Gross' behalf. On December 17, Gross was released from Cuban prison.
Americans detained abroad
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Like virtually everything in Pyongyang, the interviews were carefully managed by the regime. Each man had exactly five minutes to speak. Some of their statements seemed eerily similar.

So what was the government's motive in letting Kenneth Bae, Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Edward Fowle address the world?

"First of all, their motivation always behind these interviews has been to gather U.S. attention and then try to pave a way for high-level dialogue with Washington," said Ellen Kim of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

During their interviews Monday, all three men said they hope the U.S. government will send an envoy to help get them out of their situations -- similar to how former President Bill Clinton helped secure the release of two journalists in 2009.

"I do believe that (a) special envoy need to come in order to resolve the situation I am in right now," said Bae, who is serving 15 years at a labor camp after North Korea claimed he was part of a Christian plot to overthrow the regime.

What might North Korea want in return?

"Their negotiating ploy with the U.S. is to try to get us to agree to nuclear arms control, to sort of accept them as a nuclear weapons state -- which we can't do," said Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Another possibility: That North Korea wants sanctions against the regime lifted.

Victor Cha, the North Korea adviser to former President George W. Bush, said the presentation of all three Americans at once could be telling.

"My guess is the fact that all three of them were put on tape for an American audience on Labor Day as a signal from the North Koreans that they're looking for some sort of package deal to try to get them all out," Cha said.

"Whether they're trying to connect this to the long-style nuclear negotiations is anybody's guess."

Washington responds

The detainees' surprise interviews with CNN's Will Ripley on Monday prompted renewed calls out of Washington for the men's release.

"Out of humanitarian concern for Jeffrey Fowle, Matthew Miller, and their families, we request the DPRK release them so they may return home," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, using the initials for North Korea's official name -- the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

She said the United States is in "regular, close coordination" with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which acts as the "protecting power for issues involving U.S. citizens in North Korea."

But it's apparent the three men are now being used by North Korea as "bargaining chips," said Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has traveled to the isolated country.

"They're sending a signal, saying, 'We're ready to bargain for the three hostages,'" Richardson said.

What the detainees said

All three men said they have signed statements admitting their guilt. North Korean officials monitored and recorded all three interviews, and CNN was unable to assess independently the conditions under which the men were being held.

Bae said he is working eight hours a day, six days a week at a labor camp, even though he said his health has "been failing" over the past 1½ months. The 46-year-old has diabetes, high blood pressure and kidney stones.

Despite what he called "hard labor," Bae said he has been treated "as humanely as possible."

U.S. officials have repeatedly called on North Korea to release Bae, but to no avail.

Even former basketball star Dennis Rodman, who has visited North Korea and called its ruler Kim Jong Un a "friend for life," asked Kim to "do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose."

Terri Chung, Bae's sister, told CNN on Monday the video of his interview was "really difficult to watch."

"It is clear from the video that he is under a lot of stress. And he talks about his health failing and being in complete isolation for almost two years. And it is devastating for our family to see that on TV."

She also released a statement asking the North Korean authorities to have mercy.

"It is in your power to release my brother. You could do it today. Please do so," Chung said. "He has confessed to the crimes for which he has been charged, and he has served a longer detainment than any other American since the war."

Miller: 'My situation is very urgent'

Dressed in a black turtleneck and often avoiding eye contact, Miller said he has admitted his guilt -- even though he won't learn of his charges until he goes to trial.

"But I will say that I prepared to violate the law of the DPRK before coming here," Miller told Ripley.

The 24-year-old is accused of tearing up his tourist visa and seeking asylum upon entry.

He expressed frustration that "there's been no movement from my government."

Miller said he wanted to tell the United States that "my situation is very urgent, that very soon I am going to trial, and I would directly be sent to prison."

"I think this interview is my final chance to push the American government into helping me," he said.

Fowle describes 'desperate situation'

Fowle, an American tourist accused of leaving a Bible in a hotel where he was staying, said he has "no complaints" about his treatment.

"It's been very good so far, and I hope and pray that it continues, while I'm here two more days or two more decades," the 56-year-old said.

North Korea announced Fowle's detention in June, saying he had violated the law by acting "contrary to the purpose of tourism."

"The charges are violations of DPRK law, which stems from me trying to leave a Bible," Fowle told Ripley.

"It's a covert act and a violation of tourists rules. I've admitted my guilt to the government and signed a statement to that effect and requested forgiveness from the people and the government of the DPRK."

Fowle said with his trial expected to begin within a month, he is getting desperate.

"You guys should convey my desperate situation," he said. "I've got a wife and three elementary school-aged kids that depend on me for support."

Read: What North Korea wants the world to see

CNN's Elise Labott, Barbara Starr and Brianna Keilar contributed to this report.

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