Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller are back on U.S. soil after harrowing detentions in the hands of North Korea, just a couple of weeks after Pyongyang released tourist Jeffrey Fowle.
Fowle, who was seized in April and sentenced to six years of hard labor, admitted leaving a Bible in a restaurant so one of North Korea’s oppressed Christians could find it. Miller, also seized in April, allegedly wanted to investigate the deplorable human rights conditions in North Korea. Pyongyang said the Californian tore up his visa after arriving in the country.
Bae, who thought he could help suffering North Koreans in part by leading a tour company in the special economic zones that would help reveal the people’s plight, had been held by North Korea for two years. The Christian missionary has been suffering health crises due to the hard labor and poor conditions in prison.
Miller and Bae landed at McChord Field in Washington state on Saturday night.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was the U.S. envoy to go to Pyongyang, hand-delivering a letter that the North claimed included an “earnest apology” from President Obama.
A senior administration official told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Asia today that Clapper’s trip “was not to pursue any diplomatic opening,” and they specifically chose the national security chief to make the trip because he’s not a diplomat.
The official said North Korea requested several weeks ago that a high-level official come to Pyongyang if America wanted its citizens back. Clapper spent about a day in the country and did not meet with Kim Jong-il, the official added.
“This was a very unique opportunity to bring home two Americans,” the official said.
In South Korean media, the sudden release was tied to Democrats’ defeat in midterm elections last Tuesday.
“Obama seems to have needed to show diplomatic fruit in relations with North Korea because he has suffered defeat in the recent elections,” Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, told the Korea Times.
A high-ranking official at South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the paper that the release should not mean a softening in tone against Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons.
For more than a year, the North has been holding South Korean Baptist missionary Kim Jung-wook, who was sentenced to hard labor for the rest of his life. Kim is accused of setting up underground churches and espionage.
“We call on the North to let go of missionary Kim as soon as possible, and to respond positively to the South’s calls for inter-Korean humanitarian issues, including family reunions,” an official told the Korea Times.
Bae told reporters that he’s “recovering” from the ordeal and thanked the U.S. government as well as everyone who called for his release.
“I just want to say thank you all for supporting me and lifting me up and not forgetting,” he said.
Miller did not address the media.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Bae’s home-state senator, called it “an amazing day for all of us who have been working on this” that came about “because of the persistence and insistence and strength of Kenneth Bae’s family, who have worked so hard for the last two years to make sure no one forgets Kenneth.”
“North Korea is not an easy country to understand or comprehend on why they do a lot of things,” Murray told CNN. “I do think this day came about because of Director Clapper’s willingness and State Department’s good work to send him over there in the last few days here to release Kenneth and Matthew personally. And so I give a great deal of credit to the State Department, who has not forgotten this, has worked diligently, and directly to Director Clapper for his work in this, what we are all so grateful.”
In a statement Saturday, State Department press secretary Jen Psaki said the “safety and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad is the Department of State’s highest priority, and the United States has long called on D.P.R.K. authorities to release these individuals on humanitarian grounds.”
“We are grateful to Director of National Intelligence Clapper, who engaged on behalf of the United States in discussions with D.P.R.K. authorities about the release of two citizens. We also want to thank our international partners, especially our Protecting Power, the Government of Sweden, for their tireless efforts to help secure the freedom of Mr. Bae and Mr. Miller.”
Psaki added, “The Department of State reiterates our strong recommendation against all travel by U.S. citizens to the D.P.R.K.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he wasn’t reading much into North Korea’s actions.
“We have the release of these now three Americans in addition to that release earlier, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see rocket tests coming up or further work on miniaturizing nuclear weapons to sit on long-term rockets,” Schiff said.
In fact, just a couple of weeks ago the commander of U.S. forces in Korea told reporters at the Pentagon that they fear “uncontrolled escalation” of the nuclear threat on the peninsula as North Korea continues its weapons program.
“Kim Jong Un remains in control of an isolated, authoritative regime that’s willing to use violence and threats of violence to advance its interests, gain recognition as a nuclear power, and secure the regime’s survival,” Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said.
In recent years, he said, Pyongyang “has focused on development of asymmetric capabilities,” including “several hundred ballistic missiles, one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles, a biological weapons research program, and the world’s largest special operations force, as well as an active cyber-warfare capability.”
Scaparrotti said North Korea is believed to have a launcher to accommodate a long-range functioning missile. Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was “apprised” of the situation, but downplayed the general’s suspicion that Kim had the capability to put a nuclear weapon on an ICBM.
“We have no reason to doubt the general’s belief, but as the general also said, he has no facts or evidence to confirm that,” Kirby said.
Schiff said North Korea may have been reacting to a United Nations report on human-rights abuses that paves the way for referral of Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court.
“I think that really rocked them,” the congressman told CNN. “They’ve reacted to that development in other ways and I wouldn’t be surprised if they are trying to, what they would consider, make this diplomatic offensive to head off a referral to the criminal court.”
The Korea Herald agreed with that assessment, citing Ahn Chan-il, the head of the World North Korea Research Center, calling the release “an emergency measure by the North to ease the international pressure with regard to North Korea’s human rights violations.”
Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of State for political affairs in the George W. Bush administration, told CNN this morning that he believes Obama’s trip to China, which began today, could have made the North Koreans release Bae and Miller.
“The protector of North Korea is China Xi Jinping. The Chinese over the last year-and-a-half or so have become very frustrated with these wild — the wild behavior of the North Koreans, the constant threats against South Korea and the United States,” Burns said.
“And it may be that, in his own awkward, unsophisticated way, Kim Jong-un is trying to reassure the Chinese that he’s not such a bad guy after all, that he’s not irresponsible.”
But in the end, Burns noted, it shouldn’t signal any shift in U.S.-North Korea relations.
“They can’t be trusted. It’s an erratic regime. It’s a dictatorship of one person and one family. And so the best thing I think we can do and what the Obama administration and Bush administrations have tried to do is contain the problem, contain the regime, sanction them, repudiate them, and hope that China helps in that containment policy,” he said. “That’s something that President Obama will want to talk to President Xi Jinping about tomorrow.”