Details are still sketchy, but news is coming out this morning that North Korea has released two Americans who were being detained in their country. Both Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller are on the way home.
You will recall that Bae is a Korean-American Evangelical Christian Missionary who was put up on a show trial for allegedly trying to “topple the North Korean government” and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor roughly two years ago. His health has been failing and a variety of American negotiators, including former UN ambassador Bill Richardson, had been trying to secure his release. James Clapper is being credited today as having been integral in arranging for this release, and White House officials are confirming that he traveled to North Korea specifically to work on this issue. But that doesn’t mean that the North Koreans were under any obligation to comply.
Miller’s was a considerably more complicated story. He traveled to North Korea in April of this year and was arrested on similarly ludicrous charges. But a variety of reports claimed that he admitted to having torn up his visa upon arrival and intended to seek political asylum. If that’s the case, he clearly didn’t receive the warm welcome he had been expecting.
Jeffrey Fowle, arrested for leaving a bible in a hotel room, was released in October. So why are the North Korean’s suddenly going on a generous binge of setting foreigners free? I don’t think we have anything but guesswork to go on at this point. There has been considerable turmoil in the country in recent months, with Kim Jong-un disappearing from view, then showing up again with a limp. Is he even in control, or is he just a puppet for the party? CNN’s wise men are calling this part of a North Korean charm offensive, possibly leading up to a move to reopen negotiations with the United States and other western powers this winter. If they can bank up some good will perhaps they feel that we’ll be in more of a mood to strike a deal. And since the President seems to be in a deal making mood these days, who knows? They might get their wish.
With Bae’s health failing, it’s possible that North Korea just didn’t want him to die in their labor camp, fearing that such a thing would push the US over the edge and force a disastrous (for them) confrontation. But that wouldn’t explain the release of Miller. Another possibility is that there was already a deal struck by the Obama administration and we just aren’t hearing about it yet. If that’s the case, the White House will have to start coming clean on it soon.
I’m sure we’ll be interviewing both of the detainees once we have them back on safe ground. Whether we learn anything more at that point is doubtful because I rather suspect that the North Koreans don’t invite their prisoners to high level policy meetings. Unless, of course, this was all a result of the dedicated diplomacy work of Dennis Rodman. Yeah… that must be it.
This article originally misspelled the name of Jeffrey Fowle.