In a surprise move on Monday, North Korea permitted CNN to conduct three five-minute interviews with Kenneth Bae, Matthew Todd Miller, and Jeffrey Edward Fowle, the three Americans Pyongyang is holding for various reasons. In their comments, each of the captives urged Washington to do more to obtain their freedom.
It is virtually certain that the Kim regime arranged the interviews to obtain something from the US. It would seem, therefore, that something is up between Pyongyang and Washington.
As if reading from a script, each of the civilian detainees urged Washington to send a high-profile American to seek their release. This strongly suggests that the regime hopes to break the Obama administration’s sound policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea—a policy that refuses to deal directly with the Kim regime until it shows it can interact with the international community in good faith.
Kim has not been on the world stage lately, and any visit by a senior American diplomat would boost his stature abroad and the perceived legitimacy of his rule at home. It is a tactic his father, Kim Jong Il, used to great effect, famously luring former President Clinton to Pyongyang in 2009. For Kim, it humbled the US a bit and showed his power to his people. For Clinton, he freed two innocent Americans from the grips of an outlaw regime. Win-win. Now it would appear that the younger Kim is taking a page from his father’s playbook.
It is worth noting that there are unconfirmed reports that senior US officials made a secret trip to Pyongyang early last month to attempt to negotiate the release of the three Americans. If such a meeting did take place, the CNN interviews may well have represented the regime’s attempt to put pressure on the Obama administration. Something like a squeeze play.
Yet the young ruler may have had other purposes in mind. Analysts like to talk about Pyongyang sending signals with his various acts, yet in the final analysis outsiders can only guess what he has in mind this time. The three CNN interviews may tell us something positive is happening—Kim wanting to come to terms with the world by first establishing contact with Washington—or something negative—Kim hoping to be rejected so as to create an excuse for more provocations.
In any event, Kim Jong Un just dropped his calling card, and we will undoubtedly hear from him again soon.