PYONGYANG, North Korea – After an American was released from North Korean custody, the attention has now focused on two other U.S. citizens still in its jails, and at least one North Korean legal expert has some unusual advice to offer: let Washington formally apologize to Pyongyang, and the country's leader will consider pardoning them.
The suggestion on Thursday by Sok Chol Won, a professor of international law, offers a look at North Korean thinking — academics, government officials and ordinary people alike. While the idea of an apology may appear ludicrous to outsiders in democracies, autocratic North Korea assumes that a government is responsible for its citizens' actions.
"In order to return the prisoners to their country, the United States must make an official apology and request their release," said Sok, who teaches at Pyongyang's Academy of Social Sciences, in comments to The Associated Press.
There are other examples of North Korea expecting foreign governments to control their society. Earlier this year, it threatened retaliation if Washington didn't ban an upcoming Hollywood movie featuring Seth Rogen that portrays Kim Jong Un as the villain. It also regularly insists that Seoul keep its media from reporting negatively about the North Korean leadership and block activists from floating anti-North Korea propaganda in balloons across the border.
North Korea closely regulates its academics, media and intellectuals, so Sok's comments can also be seen as a reflection of how the leadership wants to resolve the cases of Matthew Miller, who is serving a six-year jail term on charges of espionage, and Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary who was sentenced to 15 years in jail for alleged anti-government activities.
Sok's advice also fits into North Korea's version of international diplomacy and propaganda that aims to get a big power like the United States — seen as an imperialist bully — to bow to a proud nation and say sorry for its perceived faults.
"It's not a matter of individuals. It's between countries," said Ri Kyong Chol, another law professor at the academy. "Between the U.S. and our country there is no political channel ... If there were diplomatic relations between our two countries this kind of problem wouldn't happen."
At a time when it faces growing outside criticism over its alleged human rights abuses, North Korea would see a U.S. apology as showing the outside world that it was justified in arresting the Americans, said Chang Yong Seok, a senior researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.
Chang said North Korea would also use the apology to bolster what it says is its struggle against U.S. hostility.
As expected, the United States pooh-poohed the idea of an apology.
"I can assure anyone that I don't believe there's an apology forthcoming," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday. "So I don't think anyone needs to wait on that."
The issue came into prominence after North Korea on Tuesday released Jeffrey Fowle, who unlike Miller and Bae had not yet been tried in court but had been kept in detention for six months.
Fowle was arrested for leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the city of Chongjin, where he was visiting with a foreign tour group. North Korean state media said he was released after Kim granted him a special pardon following "repeated requests" from President Barack Obama.
Psaki declined to comment on whether Obama had personally asked Fowle's release, either directly or through his appointed diplomats.
Miller, who entered the country on April 10 on a tourist visa, allegedly ripped up the document at Pyongyang's airport and demanded asylum. North Korean authorities say he intended to conduct espionage while in the country.
During his brief trial six weeks ago, North Korean prosecutors said he admitted having the "wild ambition" of experiencing prison life so that he could secretly investigate North Korea's human rights situation.
He is now digging in fields at a labor camp eight hours a day and being kept in isolation.
Bae, 46, has been held since November 2012, when he was detained while leading a tour group in a special North Korean economic zone. He was convicted of conducting "hostile acts" after being accused of smuggling in inflammatory literature and trying to establish a base for anti-government activities at a border city hotel. Bae is a Korean-American missionary, and his family believes he was detained because of his Christian faith.
Bae is suffering from chronic health issues.
Both Miller and Bae have told the AP they believe their only chance of release is the intervention of a high-ranking government official or a senior U.S. statesman.
In the past, former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have come to Pyongyang to bring detainees back home.