Remember meForgot password?
    Log in with Twitter

article imageNorth Korea detainee release positive, but no game-changer

By Giles Hewitt (AFP)     Oct 22, 2014 in World

North Korea's unexpected release of a US detainee may be aimed at prising open the door to direct talks with Washington, but the road to a genuine dialogue remains long and strewn with obstacles, analysts said Wednesday.

Announcing Jeffrey Fowle's release on Tuesday, the US State Department declined to provide any details of how it was brokered, citing ongoing efforts to secure the return of two other Americans -- Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae -- serving hard-labour prison terms in the North.

Given Pyongyang's repeated rejection of US offers to send an envoy to negotiate the detainees' release, the sudden decision to let Fowle go took many observers by surprise.

"Usually we see a clear lead-up to this sort of thing, but not in this case," said Paul Carroll, a North Korea expert and programme director at the Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco.

"It could mean the North Korean leadership is interested in exploring what might be possible in terms of picking up a conversation with the US again," Carroll said.

"In the broader context of the pressure the North is currently under over its human rights record, it might also be Pyongyang trying to show it can be reasonable," he added.

The European Union and Japan want the UN to consider pressing charges of crimes against humanity over a recent UN Commission of Inquiry report that detailed brutal rights abuses in North Korea.

While Washington welcomed Fowle's release, it was quick to stress that its focus remained firmly on the plight of Bae and Miller.

Fowle, 56, entered the North in April and was detained after apparently leaving a Bible in the bathroom of a nightclub in the northern port of Chongjin.

US citizen Kenneth Bae (L)  jailed in North Korea for more than a year  being interviewed by reporte...
US citizen Kenneth Bae (L), jailed in North Korea for more than a year, being interviewed by reporters in Pyongyang on January 20, 2014. Another US detainee, Jeffrey Fowle, has now been freed

The 24-year-old Miller was arrested in April after allegedly ripping up his visa at immigration. He was sentenced to six years hard labour in September.

Bae, 42, is serving a 15-year prison term, having been arrested in 2012 and charged with being a militant Christian evangelist intent on seeking to topple the regime.

North Korea regards unsanctioned missionary work as a crime.

- Political hostages -

Washington has accused Pyongyang of using the detainees as political hostages, and will be wary of responding to Fowle's release with any immediate concessions.

"Given the Obama administration's mantra of no reward for bad behaviour, I'm not sure how much momentum this really provides," said John Delury, a Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.

"It's a positive sign, especially if it's followed by the release of the others, but in the end it only removes an irritant. Resuming a dialogue is still many, many steps away," Delury said.

Together with ally South Korea, the United States has maintained that high-level talks can only take place after the North shows a genuine commitment to abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.

"This release doesn't change that fundamental equation," said Peter Beck, a senior adviser with the New Paradigm Institute think-tank in Seoul.

"North Korea might now consider the ball in the US court, but it's unclear if the Obama administration will try to engage -- at least before the others are set free," Beck said.

US domestic politics might also play a role.

A anti-North Korean activist holds a placard calling for the release of US missionary Kenneth Bae in...
A anti-North Korean activist holds a placard calling for the release of US missionary Kenneth Bae in Seoul, Febraury 16, 2014. Another US detainee has been released
Ed Jones, AFP/File

With mid-term elections looming in November, any good news regarding the US detainees will be welcome, but it can't be seen to soften the administration's stance towards Pyongyang.

- North Korean spin -

North Korea has yet to put its spin, or even comment, on Fowle's release.

"It'll be interesting to see what they come up with," said Delury. "I imagine something to the effect that the Americans regretted Fowle's actions and said it wouldn't happen again."

The North insisted that a US government plane be sent to collect Fowle -- lending an official diplomatic element to the release process.

There is no US embassy in Pyongyang and the State Department had stressed the role of the Swedish embassy, which looks after US interests there, in securing Fowle's release.

It was not clear if any US officials were on board the flight that landed in Pyongyang or if there was any interaction with North Korean officials at the airport.

Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said he expected the other two Americans to be released, but added that Pyongyang would hold out for a high-level US envoy to come and pick them up.

More about NKorea, US, Diplomacy, Prisoner
More news from
Latest News
Top News