Few people know how or why Pyongyang decided to release two American prisoners over the weekend. Acts of leniency from the autocratic North Korea are rare indeed.
But one man who could shed light on an uncommon act of diplomacy is Kun “Tony” Namkung, a mysterious intermediary who has for years negotiated with the unpredictable regime. With no official position, Kun ‘Tony’ Namkung seems to have played a central role in the sudden release of three American prisoners.
Offering sensitive advice to high-level US, Japanese and South Korean figures in their dealings with North Korea, Mr Namkung, 67, has played a critical backstage role in bringing about the release of three Americans: first, last month, Jeffrey Fowle, and then, at the weekend, the missionary Kenneth Bae and “adventurer” Matthew Todd Miller, both sentenced to hard labour for “hostile acts”.
On his most recent visit to Pyongyang last month, Mr Namkung lobbied hard with a wide range of contacts to win freedom for all three of the Americans. His efforts followed a prolonged campaign for mercy for 46-year-old Mr Bae, arrested two years ago for trying to spread “Christian propaganda” while leading a tour group from China to the industrial zone at Rason near the Chinese border.
Mr Namkung knew Mr Bae’s and Mr Miller’s release was imminent when Mr Fowle, who had been detained at a hotel awaiting trial, was told 30 minutes before being taken to the airport that he was going home. “One down, two to go,” Mr Namkung, who holds a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, emailed after Mr Fowle’s release.