Sometimes it is hard to know what is driving the zig-zags in North Korea’s diplomacy. No sooner had we noted the end of Pyongyang’s recent charm offensive (here and here) than the regime followed up its October release of Jeffrey Fowle by also releasing Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller.
However, it certainly appears that the ongoing diplomacy at the UN over the Commission of Inquiry report is part of Pyongyang’s calculations. Bae—in poor health—had been incarcerated for two years. Although formally charged with plotting to overthrow the government, religious proselytizing was likely the main reason he was held. Miller has been held for seven months for bizarre behavior when entering the country: tearing up his visa and seeking asylum. North Korea did not succeed in its intense efforts to water down the human rights resolution sponsored by Japan and the EU at the UN General Assembly, and particularly to delete references to referral of the case to the International Criminal Court; we document those efforts here and here As the resolution now moves towards a vote in the coming weeks, the detainees were likely seen as baggage of rapidly declining value.
The short statement by State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki and by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence provided only a few bits of information, namely that the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang had been working the issue and that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper “engaged on behalf of the United States in discussions with D.P.R.K. authorities about the release of two citizens.” According to an interview with CNN, Clapper’s trip to Pyongyang was triggered by a North Korean approach that came out of the blue and he accompanied the two home. Clapper claimed to CNN that no quid-pro-quos were involved and that he did not discuss the larger issue of North Korea’s weapons programs.
Finally, we can’t refrain from noting Psaki’s parting shot: “The Department of State reiterates our strong recommendation against all travel by U.S. citizens to the D.P.R.K.” Our posts on the ongoing debates around the pros and cons of tourism—mostly by my colleague Marc Noland—can be found here; our post on the recent update to the State Department advisory can be found here. Although we are happy for the detainees and their families, our view is that they are “not so innocents” abroad that absorb a lot of diplomatic bandwidth (see Jeffrey Bader’s scathing treatment of the Laura Ling-Euna Lee saga. If you travel to North Korea to engage in subverting the regime--however well intentioned--guess what? You are likely to be incarcerated.
Previous Posts on the Detainees
- Detainees and Envoys (April 2013; on the possible North Korean motive of securing visits by high level envoys)
- Detained Americans: Not-So-Innocents Abroad (September 2013; brief outlines of the American detainees)
- Merrill Newman “Confesses” (November 2013)
- Why is Kenneth Bae Treated More Harshly than John Short (March 2014)
- Miller Matthew Todd (April 2014; how Miller’s name was initially reported by KCNA)
- State Department Travel Advisory Update (June 2014)
- Slave to the Blog: Abductions and Detainees Edition (June 2014; Fowle detention)
- Detainee Update and Canadians in Dandong (early August 2014 stories on the three Americans and the sweep against Christians along the Chinese side of the border)
- The Release of Jeffrey Fowle (October 21, 2014)