The release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller is the latest twist in the fitful relationship between the Obama administration and the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, whose approach to the U.S. has shifted back and forth from defiance to occasional conciliation.
A senior Obama administration official said the president approved the mission last week and U.S. officials spent the next several days planning the trip. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, spent roughly a day on the ground and met with North Korean security officials — but not with Kim. Clapper went with the sole purpose of bringing home the two detainees, although the U.S. anticipated that other issues of concern to the North would come up during Clapper’s discussions, the official said.
Analysts who study North Korea said the decision to free Bae and Miller now from long prison terms probably was a bid to ease pressure in connection with its human rights record. A recent U.N. report documented rape, torture, executions and forced labor in the North’s network of prison camps, accusing the government of “widespread, systematic and gross” human rights violations.
North Korea seems worried that Kim could be accused in the International Criminal Court, said Sue Mi Terry, a former senior intelligence analyst now at Columbia University.
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now at the Heritage Foundation, agreed that efforts to shine a spotlight on the country’s human rights record “startled the regime and led to frantic attempts to derail the process.”