SEOUL: North Korea’s unexpected release of a US detainee may be aimed at prising open the door to direct talks with Washington, but the road to a genuine dialogue remains long and strewn with obstacles, analysts said on Wednesday.
Announcing Jeffrey Fowle’s release on on Tuesday, the US State Department declined to provide any details of how it was brokered, citing ongoing efforts to secure the return of two other Americans – Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae – serving hard-labor prison terms in the North.
Given Pyongyang’s repeated rejection of US offers to send an envoy to negotiate the detainees’ release, the sudden decision to let Fowle go took many observers by surprise.
“Usually we see a clear lead-up to this sort of thing, but not in this case,” said Paul Carroll, a North Korea expert and program director at the Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco.
“It could mean the North Korean leadership is interested in exploring what might be possible in terms of picking up a conversation with the US again,” Carroll said.
“In the broader context of the pressure the North is currently under over its human rights record, it might also be Pyongyang trying to show it can be reasonable,” he added.
The European Union and Japan want the United Nations to consider pressing charges of crimes against humanity over a recent UN Commission of Inquiry report that detailed brutal rights abuses in North Korea.
While Washington welcomed Fowle’s release, it was quick to stress that its focus remained firmly on the plight of Bae and Miller.
Fowle, 56, entered the North in April and was detained after apparently leaving a Bible in the bathroom of a nightclub in the northern port of Chongjin.
The 24-year-old Miller was arrested in April after allegedly ripping up his visa at immigration. He was sentenced to six years hard labor in September.
Bae, 42, is serving a 15-year prison term, having been arrested in 2012 and charged with being a militant Christian evangelist intent on seeking to topple the regime.
North Korea regards unsanctioned missionary work as a crime.
Washington has accused Pyongyang of using the detainees as political hostages, and will be wary of responding to Fowle’s release with any immediate concessions.