American Detainees in North Korea
September 17, 2014
North Korea announced on Sunday, September 14 that 24 year-old American Matthew Todd Miller from Bakersfield, California was sentenced to six years of hard labor by the Supreme Court of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea). He was charged with entering North Korea “under the guise of a tourist” and trying to commit an act of espionage while in the country. Mr. Miller, who has been detained since April 10, is now the second American to be charged and sentenced in a North Korean court for committing hostile acts against the DPRK government. Although no other official details have been made available, Associated Press and Choson Sinbo report that Miller was charged under Article 64 of the DPRK’s criminal code, and was accused of entering the country with the deliberate intention to be arrested so that he can experience North Korean prison life and write about its human rights conditions.
Two other Americans remain in North Korean detention: Korean-American tour operator Kenneth Bae and 56-year old Jeffrey Fowle from Ohio. Bae had been held in the country since November 2012, and was sentenced on May 2, 2013 to 15 years of hard labor for a list of alleged crimes geared towards toppling the DPRK government using religious activities to promote an anti-DPRK agenda. He has been sentenced to work in a labor camp with periodic hospitalizations because of health problems. Mr. Fowle was detained for “acting in violation of DPRK law.” He arrived in the country on April 29 on a tourist visa and was taken into custody on June 6 by North Korean authorities after leaving a copy of a Bible in a hotel in Chongjin. Mr. Fowle is expected to go to trial soon.
Q1: What is Pyongyang’s strategy for detaining American citizens in North Korea?
A1: No one knows for sure, but there appear to be three goals. First, with the detainments and harsh sentences, North Korea wants to deter all future efforts by outsiders to encourage internal resistance or defections from the country.
Second, the regime’s tactical game may be to break U.S. insistence that Pyongyang show credible actions toward denuclearization before meaningful dialogue is possible. By parading these Americans as detainees on CNN, Pyongyang takes attention off its denuclearization obligations as a precondition for resuming Six-Party talks and instead puts pressure on the Obama administration to make the release of Bae, Miller, and Fowle the quid pro quo for resumption of diplomacy. This is all part of a broader plan to win acceptance from the international community as a de facto nuclear weapons state.
A third distant reason may be to deflect criticism about human rights abuses in the country after the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) Report by having these Americans report on CNN (under duress) that they are being treated humanely, even in a labor camp.
Q2: What should the United States government do?
A2: No U.S. administration can leave American citizens unjustly imprisoned in the worst human rights abusing regime in the world. But getting them out is no easy task. Sending a high-level envoy, like former presidents (Bill Clinton went in 2009 to retrieve two American journalists who were sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp. And in 2010 Jimmy Carter went to negotiate the release of American Aijalon Gomes who was sentenced to eight years of hard labor), will set a bad precedent and will encourage similar actions by the North in the future. Moreover, the North reportedly has been unresponsive to different feelers from both government and private sectors about possible envoys to bring the Americans home. Restarting negotiations with the North in a bilateral or Six-Party context would contradict the policy stance that President Obama has taken for the past four years. Unsurprisingly, there are no good options when it comes to North Korea.
Q3: So, is there nothing that can be done?
A3: The Obama administration is undeniably working to secure the release of the Americans through quiet diplomatic channels. Giving the impression of “business as usual” at the political level, however, is unhelpful. Here are some things that could be done until a solution is achieved:
- Using the same talking point about asking Pyongyang for amnesty and release on humanitarian grounds in response to every question on the topic for the past two years is ineffective. The last official statement by the White House was on August 27, 2013 in the form of a statement by the Press Secretary. North Korean persecution of Bae and Miller is unprecedented and the administration should be on the record with a higher-level Statement by the President [SBTP] that the act of unjustly sentencing innocent Americans to labor camps in North Korea without fair trial is unacceptable and reprehensible. The administration should issue a travel ban for North Korea until the Americans are released. This would not require new legislation, but could be done through tightened restrictions on transactions related to travel issued by the Treasury Department (OFAC).
- The U.S. government should recommend the same of other countries whose citizens are in danger of being detained. There has to be a cost to North Korea’s newly-hatched desire for tourism if it continues to imprison Americans.
- A senior American official should be allowed (if indeed this has not already been formally proposed) to meet with the detained Americans periodically until their release is secured.
- The families of the detained Americans should be afforded every courtesy possible and high-level access to the administration in Washington, given their difficult situation.
Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
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