The U.S. State Department on Tuesday confirmed that North Korea has released one of the three U.S. citizens it has been holding prisoner.
Jeffrey Fowle, an American tourist and father of three, was arrested in May on accusations of leaving a Bible behind in a hotel. He was allowed to depart North Korea on a U.S. military transport plane, according to a department press release that did not say when he was released into U.S. custody. The department did not provide many details about how the prisoner release came to transpire other than thanking the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang for its “tireless efforts” as the United States’ “Protecting Power in the DPRK.”
The Kim Jong Un regime continues to hold two other Americans, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller.
Since North Korea never makes a good-faith gesture without an ulterior motive, it can be an interesting exercise to try to predict what Pyongyang has up its sleeve this time.
“We know they grab people to trade them,” said Jeffrey Lewis, who directs the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “They clearly think they’re going to get something in exchange for this release. It’s very doubtful that it is a purely humanitarian gesture.”
Lewis emphasized how difficult it is to accurately guess at the intentions of the famously closed-off Kim regime. Still, he said Pyongyang could have freed Fowle in order to give its chief benefactor, China, a “deliverable” ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Beijing next month. The North might also be seeking to build-up some goodwill ahead of its next potential provocation, Lewis said.
A number of arms control observers have speculated that the next provocation could involve the launch of another satellite. Earlier this month, 38 North, an expert website that uses satellite image analysis to track weapons development in North Korea, reported that the Stalinist state had evidently completed a key construction effort to expand its Sohae Satellite Launching Station, which was the site of a successful space launch in December 2012. Pyongyang’s development of a satellite launch program is a serious concern to the international community as rocket technology can also be used to build intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“North Korea is now ready to move forward with another rocket launch,” reads the analysis by 38 North image expert Nick Hansen. “Should a decision be made soon to do so in Pyongyang – and we have no evidence that one has – a rocket could be launched by the end of 2014.”