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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Detainee Update

by | August 5th, 2014 | 07:00 am
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In the span of a few days last week, North Korea has released new information on each of the three Americans currently being detained: Kenneth Bae (46), who has already been sentenced to 15 years at hard labor; Matthew Miller, who entered the country on April 10 on a tourist visa and was immediately detained when he purportedly tore it up; and Jeffrey Edward Fowle (56), who entered the country on April 29 and was detained just as he was departing. We can only assume that this information is designed to increase pressure on the US to settle these cases, presumably by sending an envoy or envoys and perhaps paying ransom for their release. Another possibility: that the North Koreans are setting the agenda for a possible US-North Korea meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum scheduled for August 9-10 in Burma.

The case of Kenneth Bae remains the most dire of the three. Bae was arrested in November 2012 while leading a tour of Rason similar to ones he had apparently led before; there is still no detail on the “hostile acts” against the state for which he was convicted but they have been widely assumed to be religious in nature. Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in April 2013. Complications from diabetes, an enlarged heart and back problems prompted his hospitalization from August of last year to January of this one, and a flurry of hope, subsequently dashed, that Dennis Rodman, human rights envoy Bob King or former ambassador Donald Gregg might be able to secure his release (February footage of Bae from CNN here). He was then hospitalized again in March.

The unwelcome news—or threat—is that he is about to be returned to his work camp, with a likely further deterioration in health. The Seattle Times provides the best coverage of the family’s efforts to secure his release. According to his family, this is the first news about Bae since April although the State Department claims it has been in regular contact, most recently in July.

The news on Fowle and Miller is that the two detainees now expect that they are going to trial, at which point the cost of their release will presumably rise. An Associated Press scan over a letter written by Fowle confirms his crime is unintentionally leaving a Bible in a Chongjin nightclub. Local news outlets in Ohio provide personal detail on Fowle’s family. No insight is offered into Miller’s crime, but like Fowle he pleads in a somewhat stilted fashion for US intervention. Both are asked about their health, and claim they are being treated well.

In a somewhat cryptic remark last week, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf noted that what American detainees said on video should be taken with a grain of salt. This is certainly true; portions of both clips are clearly scripted. Does State know more? Harf noted that the US had made representations with respect to Bae but had no new information on Fowle and Miller.

On a separate note, Australia has now issued a heightened travel advisory on North Korea. The warning, the second highest of the foreign ministry’s four-level travel alerts, said, “We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).” In February, the North arrested John Short, a 75-year-old Australian missionary, for distributing religious materials during his tour to the country before releasing him two weeks later. The United States updated its travel advisory in May.

The National Committee on North Korea has an excellent Briefing Paper that provides more detail on the detainees.

Other Witness to Transformation Posts on Detainees:

  • Detainees and Envoys (April 2013; on the possible North Korean motive of securing visits by high level envoys)