Is Jeffrey Fowle's release a bid to end North Korea's isolation?

Release of US Christian who left a Bible in a nightspot in the totalitarian society may be part of effort for isolated regime to start engaging. 

Wong Maye-E/AP/File
Jeffrey Fowle, an American detained in North Korea speaks to the Associated Press in Pyongyang, North Korea. Fowle, one of three Americans being held in North Korea, has been released, the State Department said Tuesday.

The release by the North Korean regime of US citizen Jeffrey Fowle appears to be at least a minimal move toward some kind of engagement by young leader Kim Jong-un.

The context of Mr. Fowle’s release is both the terrific isolation in which North Korea finds itself, and the lack of desire in Washington to deal with the prickly regime, analysts say. As with most things involving the Kim family it is unknown how consequential the release of Fowle actually is.

Today’s first range of analysis runs from “not much,” to “North Korea is making a diplomatic push,” as the Council on Foreign Relations opines, to this “could lead in a year’s time to a meeting between President Obama and Kim Jong Un,” as Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute in Berkeley, Ca, puts it.

Fowle, a city employee from the Midwest, had left a Bible in a nightspot while on a tour of the totalitarian society last spring. He got arrested on charges of promoting Christianity and has been in prison awaiting trial. He arrived back home in Miamisburg, Ohio via Guam today after a series of moves in Pyongyang aided by the Swedish Embassy there. The US has no diplomatic ties with North Korea.  

Yet the mechanics of Fowle’s release were all about dealing with the US more formally. It is likely no accident that North Korea insisted that Fowle be picked up in Pyongyang by a US military aircraft from the Department of Defense and that all official DPRK characterizations of the event emphasized that Mr. Kim was doing a specific favor for Obama, after the US president had requested Fowle’s release.

(Two other Americans are languishing in detention in the North: Kenneth Bae, a missionary, and Matthew Miller, who allegedly schemed to get arrested and see North Korean  prison labor gulag camps first hand. But for the North to have released all three men would have sent more of a signal than Pyongyang was looking for.)   

North Korea’s isolation is the most important point of context in any opening say many analysts:

Since Kim Jong-un was rushed into the leadership by his ailing father, Kim Jong Il, he has overseen the expansion of a nuclear program – and at the same time now faces a possible indictment by the International Criminal Court for the system of prison labor camps known as the “hidden gulag,” housing an estimated 125,000 people. Both have isolated the regime.

Kim’s first days in power corresponded with a successful missile launch and a nuclear test that worried the world. He then threatened to incinerate various Japanese and American Pacific targets. Last fall the inheritor of one of the world’s more unusual dynasties executed his uncle, the most powerful figure in the Hermit Kingdom, and the man with the best ties to China, which props up the North with cash, food, and goods.

Then early this year, having apparently consolidated power, Kim faced a diplomatic push to make North Korea the first non-African nation to get indicted for crimes against humanity. The six-party talks on Kim's nuclear program are moribund. 

The North has recently exchanged cross-border fire with the South, Kim disappeared for 38 days then reappeared, and now he has released Fowle and sent diplomats to South Korea. 

Partly, Pyongyang is trying to defend itself from crimes against humanity charges and to soften its image in the world. This week for the first time in years, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, Jang Il Hun, met with an American audience, this one at the Council on Foreign Relations in  New York, where he said that, “Martial Kim Jong Un cares very much about my people,” and described Kim’s rule as a “Politics of love for the people…”

Mr. Hayes of the Nautilus Institute thinks that the Fowle release is a small effort to show China and Russia that Kim is trying to engage the Americans. He takes the view that if the White House can carry off a nuclear deal with Iran, then North Korea would follow suit. 

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