Why did North Korean leader Kim Jong-il choose this moment to release a South Korean who had been detained in the North for the 136 days? Kim appears to have summoned Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jung-eun to North Korea on Monday after deciding to free the Hyundai Asan employee following the release of the two U.S. journalists during the visit of former U.S. president Bill Clinton.
It seems that Kim intended to use the U.S. journalists and Yu Seong-jin as tools in diplomatic games with the United States and South Korea. His basic strategy was to turn to South Korea when relations with the U.S. were yielding no benefits and to show more flexibility in dealings with Washington when relations with Seoul chilled. But contrary to expectations, the Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama administrations maintained solid cooperation in their responses to the North's provocations, so Pyongyang apparently accepted the reality that it would not be able to reap any benefits if it held them any longer even as international sanctions started to bite.
Suh Jae-jean, president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, said Clinton's demand that North Korea release not only the U.S. journalists but also Yu and the crew of the fishing boat 800 Yeonan, who were towed to the North on July 30, probably had something to do with Yu's release. Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University, said by releasing Yu, the North "intended to fix an obstacle in its relations with South Korea which could have impeded its relations with the U.S."
In talks over the release of the two U.S. journalists, North Korea is said to have made informal contacts with South Korean civic groups over the release of Yu. One South Korean government source said, "I know that North Korea tried to contact the South through civic group Korea Sharing Movement to discuss Yu's release. The government tried to secure Yu's release through various channels, including civic groups and Hyundai Asan."
Some see Yu's release as a gift to the Hyundai chief, whose company pioneered business with North Korea. Others point out that nothing comes without a price tag in relations with North Korea and Pyongyang probably expects some sort of financial compensation from Seoul for Yu's release.
Kim was paid US$500 million for the first inter-Korean summit with South Korean president Kim Dae-jung in 2000, and fertilizer aid has been paid in exchange for granting reunions between families separated during the Korean War. From this context, some experts believe North Korea may be seeking the resumption of food aid from South Korea, which was halted in 2007.