A catalyst for dialogue
North Korea released the two remaining Americans in custody last weekend. The decision came three weeks after freeing Jeffrey Fowle, another U.S. citizen who had been detained for five months for leaving a Bible at a club for sailors. Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour guide, and Matthew Miller, who was accused of tearing up his tourist visa, were freed Saturday. The three Americans were sentenced on charges of trying to subvert the secretive state.
Diplomatic circles have come up with many explanations about the motivations behind the recalcitrant government’s last-minute decision to release the Americans this time. One is that North Korea took action to ease mounting pressure over a strong UN resolution that accused the North’s ruling class of violating human rights and called for the regime to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. Another explanation is that Pyongyang took the step as a show of appeasement ahead of the U.S.China summit on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference in Beijing this week.
The U.S. government’s dispatching of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper Jr. to Pyongyang as a special envoy to settle the detention could also have helped the North to free the Americans.
Clapper serves as head of more than a dozen U.S. intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Obama administration’s sending of the intelligence czar could also be aimed at other missions — a role as a “diplomatic messenger,” for instance — than simply bringing the two remaining U.S. citizens back home.
The U.S. government has underscored that the release is only a human rights issue, reaffirming that there will be no change in U.S. policy toward Pyongyang and that Washington will not agree to negotiations with the North until it proves its determination to disarm its nuclear weapons program.
Yet, the North’s decision to free all three Americans has helped eliminate one obstacle in their frozen ties. The Obama administration desperately needs a diplomatic “legacy” following the Democratic Party’s crushing defeat in the midterm elections.
As the North inches toward sophisticating of nuclear weapons, there are also rumors that it has begun to reactivate a second highly enriched uranium factory. Whatever the case, Washington and Pyongyang need to communicate. We hope the release of Americans serves a catalyst for kicking off dialogue.