Release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller: Why Now?

By Andy Lim & Victor Cha

Statue of Kim Il-Sung in Kaesong, North Korea. Source: Gabriel Britto's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Statue of Kim Il-Sung in Kaesong, North Korea. Source: Gabriel Britto’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

The surprise release of the last two Americans detained in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller on Saturday, November 8, meant that including Jeffrey Fowle, who was released on October 31, all Americans held by the North Korean government have successfully returned home in the past two weeks.

Their safe return came after the U.S. government sent Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, the highest ranking U.S. official to visit North Korea since then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright in 2000, to secure their release. Director Clapper went to Pyongyang with the sole purpose of bringing them home, a mission clearly identified in a letter he brought from President Obama and addressed to Kim Jong-un, who he did not meet during the trip. The selection of Director Clapper, a cabinet-level intelligence official, and not a diplomat, clearly shows that administration is separating the humanitarian issue – American detainees – from the ongoing denuclearization negotiation talks.

The fact that the release came over the weekend may have to do with two things.

The first is that by releasing the detainees on the eve of President Obama’s trip to Asia, where he is now attending the APEC summit in Beijing, will ensure that nearly every question that Obama will be asked during his time there will be about North Korea. Pyongyang loves that sort of international attention.

The second thing concerns the United Nations draft resolution by the European Union and Japan to ask the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York to recommend the referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. The resolution, which already has 50 sponsors, will be voted on by the UNGA’s Third Committee next week, to be followed by a vote from the 193 members of the UNGA sometime in the near future.

Although the United States and partners have levied UN-backed economic sanctions against the DPRK previously for their ballistic and nuclear weapons programs, the record shows showed that this has not really deterred North Korea from launching ballistic missiles, conducting nuclear tests, shooting at leaflet balloons, exchanging live-gun fire with the ROK military, or sending UAVs over South Korea.

But concerted efforts this year, beginning with the 372-page United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in the DPRK in February, to put pressure on Pyongyang for its human rights record have brought renewed international attention and criticism to the closed state. The unwarranted attention this time has caused Pyongyang much embarrassment, prompting the regime to send North Korean foreign minister Ri Su Yong to address the UNGA for the first time in fifteen years on September 27, and to propose its own UN resolution to report on its human rights condition in October.

Maybe the sight of Uhuru Kenyatta, the current president of Kenya, standing in front of the court at The Hague last month for crimes against humanity has jolted North Korean elites to a new reality. They have clearly never seen anything like this before. The regime might be used to economic sanctions and military exercises, but the sight of a head of state standing before a court could truly worry them. Although the possibility that the ICC forcing Kim Jong-un to come before the tribunal is far-fetched – it certainly has no capability to do so – the more plausible scenario is that one of North Korea’s officials might be detained under ICC’s jurisdiction while traveling abroad. Up until now, Kim Jong-un and his ruling elites may have felt untouchable and insulated from outside pressure, but recent developments might have prompted a slight change in approach.

Mr. Andy Lim is a researcher with the Korea Chair at CSIS. Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at CSIS. You can follow him on twitter @vcgiants.

Victor Cha

Victor Cha

Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and Korea Chair at CSIS. He is also a professor of government at Georgetown University.


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