Over the next few days, we will learn more about the mechanics of Jeffrey Fowle’s release: the channels through which it was negotiated and the terms—if any—to reach the deal. But we can provide some context for why the North Koreans might have released Fowle rather than Miller or Bae, and they center on a complex image campaign North Korea is currently orchestrating in response to the UN debate on the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the country.
Despite gunfire along the Northern Limit Line and DMZ, the last several months have witnessed a spate of North Korean diplomatic initiatives: the Stockholm agreement in May to reopen negotiations with Japan on abductees; Kang Sok Ju’s four-country tour of Europe; the Incheon delegation for the closing ceremony of the Asian games and above all, an aggressive diplomacy—including a rare appearance by the DPRK’s Foreign Minister--at the UN to counter a pending resolution on human rights that will be voted at the UN General Assembly later in the month or in early November (see our posts on these developments here, here, and here).
Releasing Fowle reflects in part North Korea’s evaluation of the risks that the three detainees actually posed. Kenneth Bae is clearly the most dangerous. A proselytizng native Korean speaker is a genuine threat; a well-intentioned but naïve tourist from Ohio—even if leaving Bibles in bathrooms--is not.
Indeed, Fowle’s apparent religiosity may even help explain why he was released before Miller, who seems to be incarcerated largely for his personal quirkiness.
North Korea has been hard at work defending its human rights record in the UN and elsewhere, including its stance on religion. Pages 86-88 of the DPRK’s Association for Human Rights Studies report (full .pdf here, thanks to Adam Cathcart) seeks to explain the country’s contradictory stance on religious freedom. On the one hand, the report contains numerous references to religion as a dangerous tool used by foreign enemies to undermine the state. On the other hand, the report seeks to portray itself as completely compliant with international norms, allowing both citizens and foreigners to choose and practice any religion they wish. Freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution (Article 68) and the recent counter-report claims that “the DPRK Government has never forced or influenced people either to believe or not to believe any kind of religion, and moreover, she [the DPRK] has never opposed, tormented, oppressed or restricted religion or religious people.”
Releasing Fowle could be a low-cost way for the country to soften its human rights image, while continuing to send the signal that serious jail time awaits those Korean-Americans and Koreans that constitute more serious challenges.
Our position on the detainees is clear. North Korea systematically persecutes people of faith (our posts on religion can be found here). What these detainees did should not be a crime, our hearts go out to their families, and we wish for the speedy release of Bae and Miller. But it is also the case that this is North Korea and what they did probably was a crime, if we can consider North Korea as even having rule of law properly construed. People traveling to North Korea to make statements of various sorts not only run personal risks, but complicate US diplomacy in costly and distracting ways.
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)