Why Did North Korea Release Its Two American Prisoners Now?

It took a surprise trip to North Korea by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to secure the release of the two Americans imprisoned there: the missionary Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller. The news, which Clapper’s office announced early Saturday, comes less than three weeks after Pyongyang freed Jeffrey Edward Fowle, who was arrested ...

Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

It took a surprise trip to North Korea by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to secure the release of the two Americans imprisoned there: the missionary Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller. The news, which Clapper's office announced early Saturday, comes less than three weeks after Pyongyang freed Jeffrey Edward Fowle, who was arrested in May 2014 for leaving a Bible in a North Korean sailor's club.

So why is North Korea releasing the men now?

With the usual caveat about scrutinizing the inscrutable -- North Korea is harder to read than a Paulo Coelho novel -- these are the three most likely possibilities:

It took a surprise trip to North Korea by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to secure the release of the two Americans imprisoned there: the missionary Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller. The news, which Clapper’s office announced early Saturday, comes less than three weeks after Pyongyang freed Jeffrey Edward Fowle, who was arrested in May 2014 for leaving a Bible in a North Korean sailor’s club.

So why is North Korea releasing the men now?

With the usual caveat about scrutinizing the inscrutable — North Korea is harder to read than a Paulo Coelho novel — these are the three most likely possibilities:

Part of a "Diplomatic Charm Offensive"

North Korea’s relations with China have been frosty, especially since the execution in December of Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was widely seen as Pyongyang’s leading China hand. Relations with Japan remain tense over the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. 

But against that background of diplomatic tensions, North Korea has been surprising engaging with South Korea, the European Union, and the United States. In early October, Pyongyang sent a delegation of top officials on a very rare trip to South Korea, and a senior envoy to the European Union to express North Korea’s readiness to resume the six-party talks aimed at resolving the stand-off over its nuclear program.  

After the release of Fowle in October, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Pyongyang to release Bae and Miller, in order to build goodwill. It seems like Pyongyang has listened.  

An Insult to China

An impoverished country of 25 million people, North Korea knows how to punch above its weight in attracting international news coverage.

From Nov. 5 to Nov. 11, Beijing is hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. It has made it very clear, both domestically and internationally, just how important it sees this meeting. For Pyongyang to release the prisoners now is a subtle diplomatic insult, as it briefly takes the attention away from Beijing. 

To Keep Itself Out of the International Criminal Court (ICC)

In mid-April, Michael Kirby, the chief U.N. investigator into North Korea’s human rights abuses, called for the U.N. Security Council to refer Pyongyang — and even possibly North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — to the ICC for crimes the regime has committed against its own people. In mid-October, Japan and the European Union passed around a draft resolution encouraging the Security Council to refer North Korea to the ICC.

While China would likely veto the move — in a late October interview, China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told me resolutions like that were not "helpful or constructive" — Pyongyang seems genuinely worried.

North Korea has been surprisingly vociferous in denying the charges leveled at it by the international community. North Korea’s typically taciturn Ambassador to the U.N. even met recently with a group of Americans, including two journalists, to try to downplay the report.

Miller reportedly tried to get sent to a North Korean prison for the purpose of witnessing North Korean human rights abuses. With the ICC watching, North Korea may have released the prisoners in order to forestall what could be an embarrassing spectacle at The Hague. 

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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