Unconditional Prisoner Release by Pyongyang a Sign of Things to Come?

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NANJING — Jeffrey Fowle, one of three American nationals being held in detention in North Korea, was released last week after five months in prison in the reclusive communist state. Mr. Fowle allegedly left a Bible in a club in the North Korean city of Chongjin. The Pyongyang regime regards proselytization as a crime against the state. For State Department officials looking to secure the release of Mr. Fowle and two other American prisoners, the move came as a surprise. Mr. Fowle was released unconditionally, which is unprecedented in North Korea. Former US Ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson has been quoted as expressing optimism based on this development, hoping that it can represent a new starting point in icy relations between the two countries. This is “a signal to the US that says ‘All right, let’s start talking,’” Richardson said. Facilitated with the help of Swedish diplomats (Sweden has an embassy in Pyongyang), the development has led some observers to optimistically hope for a thaw in relations.

While the unprecedented, unconditional release of Mr. Fowle is welcome, optimism towards the Kim regime must be measured. Regional observers have noted that the North appears to be seeking  reconciliation with its neighbors, as the release of Mr. Fowle comes in the wake of a surprise visit to South Korea by a high-ranking Northern delegation. The high-level meeting, however, has yet to leave an identifiable mark. After the talks concluded, Northern and Southern troops again exchanged fire across both land and sea borders. There has been speculation that Kim Jong Un, the young leader of the isolated state, has had his power curbed. He recently reappeared in public after six weeks of dealing with a so-called “health problem”. According to North Korean state media, the release of Mr. Fowle was a direct order issued by the newly recovered Kim.

Nothing that comes from the North Korean state media is worthy of trust. Speculation has been rampant that movers behind the scenes have been rearranging the power structure in Pyongyang. The timing of the release is odd, as North Korea’s state-run Sinmun newspaper had recently described bilateral relations with the US as its “lowest ebb” since a 1994 diplomatic agreement intended to stop the North Korean nuclear program and set bilateral relations on a course towards normalization. That agreement has since completely unraveled.

Japan, who has had citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents and has an unknown number of nationals being held in the reclusive North, has been pushing to bring Pyongyang before the International Criminal Court. The European Union has made similar overtures. The UN released a new human rights report this year on North Korean norms, which has opened up fresh criticism against the regime and has seen pressure increase for more proactive attempts to change North Korean behavior.

While these developments are positive, expectations in regards to the wildly irrational North Korean regime need to be tempered. A desire to thaw bilateral relations would see the North Korean regime be more proactive in securing concessions for Mr. Fowle’s release and be willing to discuss the fates of the other two American prisoners, both of whom have expressed feelings of abandonment by the US government.

North Korea is throwing the world, and not necessarily the US, a bone. The true events unraveling behind the scenes are unknown and the motivation for their behavior can only be speculated about. There is little evidence to suggest that North Korea is sincere in wanting to drastically alter their behavior, as domestic reform is nowhere to be found and the steps taken bear the mark of showmanship rather than emphasis on substantive change. This development does not have huge ramifications for bilateral relations. It is, at most, a strategic move to appease critics of the North’s human rights record and stave off attempts by Japan and others to allow international law to intervene in domestic affairs. Releasing an American is good PR and draws attention. The North is unlikely to radically alter the status quo, but they are using this event as a fig leaf to turn attention away from their controversial behavior.

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