SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea’s surprise release of two jailed American citizens is further evidence that Pyongyang is genuinely rattled by moves at the United Nations to charge its leadership with crimes against humanity, analysts said Sunday, November 9.
The release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller came days after an EU-Japan draft resolution – co-sponsored by 48 countries – was submitted to a UN General Assembly committee, urging the Security Council to refer the Pyongyang regime to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
It also came on the eve of US President Barack Obama’s departure Sunday for an APEC summit in Beijing, where he will hold official talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
As the North’s main diplomatic ally and protector, China would likely block the required UN Security Council approval for referral to the ICC, but has not publicly stated it would wield its veto.
Yang Moo-Jin, a professor of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said the sudden release of the two Americans reflected growing concern in Pyongyang at the prospect of leader Kim Jong-Un and other top officials being indicted by the ICC.
“The North is apparently trying to counter the diplomatic mood in support of the UN draft resolution targeting its leader,” Yang said.
The resolution, which could go before the full General Assembly next month, calls for a criminal investigation based on the findings of a UN inquiry that laid bare the brutality of the Pyongyang regime.
The inquiry, released earlier this year, is based on testimony of North Korean exiles and details a vast network of prison camps and documented cases of torture, rape, murder and enslavement.
Such abuses have been known about for years, but the inquiry’s exhaustive report carried the UN stamp of authority and has put the North under unprecedented pressure, which would only intensify further if the ICC were to take up the case.
North Korea has launched an unusually extensive diplomatic offensive against the resolution, with Pyongyang officials even holding a rare meeting with the top UN envoy on the North’s rights situation.
After Pyongyang released another detained US citizen last month, the head of the UN inquiry, Michael Kirby, warned the international community against allowing the rights issue to be “traded away for a little bit of charm.”
US State Department officials said Saturday, November 8, there had been no “quid pro quo” deal for Bae and Miller’s freedom, and stressed it would have no impact on the pressure being exerted over the North’s human rights record and nuclear weapons program.
Nevertheless, Yang said the North would see the release of all three detained Americans as opening a door to possible talks.
“From Pyongyang’s point of view, it’s a present for the US, and a message that it wants to have a dialogue,” he said.
The Americans’ release was secured by the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper – the highest-ranking US official to travel to the North since a landmark visit in 2000 by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Clapper carried a “brief message” from Obama to Kim Jong-Un indicating he was the president’s personal envoy.
Clapper is “someone of sufficient stature that allows the regime to say that the Americans came to Korea to kowtow for the release of its ‘criminals’,” said David Maxwell, associate director at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
Previous US detainees have been released by Pyongyang after high-profile visits by the likes of former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Koh Yoo-Hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said it was likely that Clapper and North Korean officials would have discussed issues beyond that of the prisoners.
“Few will believe that the top US intelligence official only talked about detainees during a visit like this,” Koh said.
The chances of North Korea getting the full dialogue it wants remain very slim, with Washington insisting it must first take a tangible step towards denuclearisation.
“But we should never forget that North Korea conducts blackmail diplomacy and every action is designed to obtain political and economic concessions,” Maxwell said in am e-mail.
The North has staged three nuclear tests – most recently in 2013 – while also pushing ahead with a ballistic missile program. – Rappler.com
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