The North Koreans passed word they wanted a high-ranking U.S. government official for the job, so President Barack Obama sent a gruff former general to spirit home two Americans held captive. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is no diplomat by training, and that’s perhaps just why he earned the clandestine call.
For past visits to the unpredictable and reclusive country, the United States has sent smooth-tongued luminaries such as former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson. Or North Korean experts, one of whom was Sydney Seiler, a former intelligence official who is now with the State Department.
But analysts who follow North Korea say Clapper may have been perfect for the role. The spy chief was senior enough to convey a message of respect to the North Korean. But he is not a diplomat, so he could beg off any unrelated demands the North Koreans may have made. The two countries do not have diplomatic relations.
“The director of national intelligence was just the right person for this,” said Joseph DeTrani, who used to work for Clapper as his North Korean mission manager.
On Saturday, Clapper landed on a U.S. government plane with the two Americans, Matthew Miller of Bakersfield, California, and Kenneth Bae of Lynnwood, Washington, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Washington.
Many analysts suggested that the conciliatory moves, after years of bellicose rhetoric and inflammatory actions, were in response to recent pressure over North Korea’s human rights record.
DeTrani said he believed that report may have been a factor, but he saw the releases as a hopeful sign that North Korea “wants to come out of the penalty box. … The North Koreans want to come back to negotiations,” said DeTrani, who nows leads an intelligence contractor trade group. “They are going through a bad patch. The last two years have been a disaster. They are more and more of an isolated state. We’re seeing an outreach – the leadership in Pyongyang is saying, ‘we’ve got to change course, it’s not working.”