The Price of Freedom

11.09.14 1:54 AM ET

Why North Korea Released Two Americans

What does the DPRK stand to gain for releasing two more captured Americans at this moment? And what did James Clapper tell the regime?

North Korea, acting in unprecedented fashion, released two American citizens, Kenneth Bae, and Matthew Todd Miller just hours ago. They are on their way home, escorted by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, according to a statement issued by his office today.

The surprise development comes within three weeks of the release of Jeffrey Fowle, held by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for almost six months. The 56-year-old American from Miamisburg, Ohio, left on board a plane arranged by the Defense Department—and unaccompanied by any ranking official.

In the past, Pyongyang had always demanded something of value for wayward Americans who somehow found themselves detained in the DPRK. For instance, Kim Jong Il, the ruler who died in December 2011, saw the visits of former Presidents Clinton and Carter to Pyongyang to be of substantial benefit to his rule. Clapper’s visit was much less of a prize to the North Koreans, and the only thing the regime got was “a brief message” from President Obama, delivered by the intelligence director.

A State Department official said the U.S. gave nothing for the release of Bae, serving a 15-year term in a labor camp for “hostile acts,” and Miller, detained in April for apparently trying to defect to North Korea. This follows a similar statement at the time Fowle came home.

Both statements are, of course, politically obligatory. Some analysts, therefore, have privately wondered whether the Obama administration temporarily dropped its policy of “strategic patience”—waiting the North Koreans out—to get Bae and Miller back. So, the question arises whether Washington privately promised something. After all, freeing hostages as goodwill gestures—without a guarantee of some benefit—is not the way the Kim family operates.

David Maxwell of Georgetown University, in a message sent today to his e-mail list, correctly reminds Korea watchers that the Kim regime has not changed its foreign policy objectives and notes “there is likely more behind the scenes.”

So, what might have occurred on the other side of the curtain? The regime certainly had much to gain by talking to the Americans, especially after the rupture of its relationship with China, its primary backer. Beijing-Pyongyang ties had been rocky for some time, but the execution last December of Jang Song Thaek, the uncle by marriage of ruler Kim Jong Un, led to a significant change in the nature of the China-North Korea alliance.

Kim Jong Un, who assumed power on the death of his father, had given uncle Jang nearly free rein to handle relations with Beijing. The brutal removal of Uncle Jang from the center of power meant the two capitals lost much of their ability to communicate with the other. Worse, the eradication of Jang’s nationwide patronage network in the subsequent “reign of terror” eliminated underlings who had handled China matters for Jang.

In short, young Kim cut himself off from his most important benefactor, and the Chinese, exhibiting only limited patience with their across-the-border cousins, have not reacted well to the continuing series of slights from the Kim regime. 

These developments mean the North has had to reach out to others. In the last several months Pyongyang has launched a charm offensive directed at Moscow, Tokyo, and Seoul. At the beginning of this October, for instance, General Hwang Pyong So, possibly the second-most powerful figure in the North Korean regime, headed a surprise visit to Incheon, in South Korea. Washington, therefore, is only the most recent stop on the good will bus tour.

Another explanation for the release of the three Americans is that North Korean policymakers may be trying to make the Chinese nervous by giving the impression that they are willing to negotiate in earnest with Washington. The last thing Beijing wants is America active in the North, just on the Chinese border.

Finally, Pyongyang may be trying to prevent its referral to the International Criminal Court, something that nations have contemplated after the February release of the damning report of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the North. Letting Bae and Miller go may look to the outside world as an inadequate response, but the North’s unprecedented admission in early October of the existence of labor camps shows the Kim regime is doing all it can to stop being hauled before the ICC, which could have unforeseen repercussions, even for an isolated ruling group.

Yet, North Korea has had reason to improve relations with America for a long time. The question is: Why free Fowle, Bae, and Miller at this particular moment? One possible explanation is that there are new people in Pyongyang in charge of external relations and that they are either desperate or genuinely want to put their state on a new course. 

Most analysts don’t buy this line, thinking Kim Jong Un is firmly in control, especially since he reappeared after his long absence in September and October. The Kim-in-command view, however, seems inconsistent with recent developments. 

There was, for instance, news surfacing in the last week of October that 10 supporters of Jang Song Thaek were executed. If true—and it appears consistent with anecdotal information—about 50 regime figures have been killed this year. There have been too many reports of premature deaths recently to think that matters have been settled at the top of the ruling group.

If there has in fact been a shifting of authority in Pyongyang, then Obama’s letter, carried by Clapper, could open the door to continuing discussions. Even though a fundamental improvement in relations soon is unlikely, it is right to test the North Koreans.

At some point, the regime will have to change, and we should find out if this is that moment.