North Korea chooses optimum moment to release Americans Bae and Miller

With US President Obama attending a summit in neighboring China, Kim Jong-un appears to signal desire for talks with the handover of two detainees to US intelligence chief James Clapper. 

Anthony Bolante/REUTERS
US citizen Kenneth Bae (r.), accompanied by his sister Terri and his mother Myunghee Bae (l.), speaks to the media in a news conference after he and fellow American prisoner Matthew Todd Miller (not pictured) landed aboard a US Air Force jet at McChord Field at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, November 8, 2014.

The surprising weekend release of two Americans detained by North Korea has spurred the usual flurry of speculation over why the secretive regime in Pyongyang let them go.

North Korea watchers agree the freeing of Mr. Bae, an evangelical who had been in a labor camp for two years, and Matthew Miller, who was detained in April, certainly facilitates the strategic objectives of the Kim Jong-un dictatorship. 

The releases appear to be Act Two of a process that began last month with the release of Jeffrey Fowle. The most likely scenarios are the North's concern about being indicted for crimes against humanity at the United Nations, or that it is seeking talks or at least a diplomatic thaw with the US over its nuclear program, or both.

That the Americans were handed over to James Clapper, the head of US intelligence, at a time when US President Barack Obama is in Beijing attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference is not seen as a coincidence. National Intelligence Director Clapper is also said to have been carrying a message for Mr. Kim, the supreme leader.

Song Dae-sung, president of The Sejong Institute, a security think tank, says Pyongyang may have seen the APEC summit in Beijing as an ideal propaganda platform.

“N. Korea might… decide the timing now to prevent discussing North Korea human rights issues and North Korean denuclearization and additional actions on those two issues between the U.S. and China,” Mr. Song says.

In recent months North Korea has launched one of its rare diplomatic offenses overseas, designed to counter the possibility of a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, based on years of abuses and killings in its labor camps. 

But John Delury, professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, is skeptical that this issue, rather than outreach to the US, is driving Pyongyang's policy. “They take their relationship with the United States very, very seriously, it’s one of their top strategic relationships, and it trumps [the issue of] human rights,” he says. The release of Bae and Miller removes an “irritant in their relationship with the Obama administration.”

North Korea has repeatedly called for the revival of six-nation talks over nuclear denuclearization, without preconditions. The US has insisted the regime demonstrate its sincerity through action. The talks involving the US, China, both Koreas, Russia and Japan have been dormant since 2008 when Pyongyang walked away from the negotiating table.

US officials insisted this weekend that no quid pro quo arrangement was made in the release of the two Americans. Obama said at the APEC summit on Monday that there had been no discussions on denuclearization.

But Mr. Delury says it is highly possible that Clapper did broach the nuclear issue, despite its denials.

“The Obama administration seems to put it as a point of pride, like we weren’t suckered into talking about this nuclear issue,” he says. “But that seems a little odd as a strategy. I mean, you send your intelligence director to Pyongyang, why would you not feel the North Koreans out?”

Bae was arrested two years ago while leading a tour group from China into the North and was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for spreading “Christian propaganda.” Miller arrived in Pyongyang as a tourist in April and tore up his visa, apparently so that he could be sent to a labor camp as a witness to alleged abuses. 

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