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North Korea Releases Two Americans Held In Captivity

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, two American's who've been held in North Korea, are coming home. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, negotiated their release in secret meetings. Victor Cha is with us now. He's a professor at Georgetown University and he served as Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Welcome to the program, Mr. Cha.

VICTOR CHA: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Could you remind us who these two men are and how long they have been held in North Korea?

CHA: Sure, so Kenneth Bae has been in North Korea for almost two years and was serving a long prison sentence doing hard labor. Matthew Miller was just beginning a six-year sentence and was charged and put into jail for allegedly ripping up his tourist visa when he was in the North Korean airport last April. And so these two Americans are - look like they're on their way home. And prior to this, last month, was the release of the first of the three Americans, Jeffrey Fowle, who was to be sentenced for leaving a Bible in North Korea, which the North Koreans see as quite offensive.

WERTHEIMER: Now do we know anything about the negotiations carried on by Mr. Clapper?

CHA: We don’t have a lot of information. I don't think we'll get a lot of information since he is intelligence official. My guess is that in both cases - the cases Jeffrey Fowle and Bae and Miller - this was very much unexpected. We've seen a lot of unpredictable behavior by the North - both good and bad - after the disappearance and reappearance of the North Korean leader earlier last month. And I'm not sure it tells us much in terms of what the road is forward, but the most important thing are these three Americans who have been detained are coming home.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think it's unusual for the Director of Intelligence - the country's most senior intelligence official - to be conducting this kind of operation?

CHA: It is unusual in the sense that at least I don't know of an intelligence official of this level doing something like this. It is not unusual in the sense that North Korea has always asked for a high-level person to bring out these detained Americans, and so Clapper is cabinet-level in terms of that, so that would certainly qualify as a high-level official.

Clapper is an intelligence person, he is not a policy person. So in that sense, I think there's a little bit of separation between this humanitarian issue and the policy issue. But still, it’s quite unusual, yes.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have any idea why this is happening now?

CHA: Again, with North Korea, we're all just guessing, but I think a very good guess is that the North Korean behavior lately is all motivated by what's happening in the United Nations right now. The United Nations is deliberating on a resolution to refer North Korea to the ICC - the International Criminal Court for human rights abuses. It's the first time that the U.N. has ever done something like this, following on from their report that was done last February - the Commission of Inquiry report. And I think this has just completely rattled the North Koreans. They've never seen anything like this before. They've never seen the U.N. as a group putting forward a resolution to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court. And I think that they are just trying to do things like this to blunt that criticism. They've been sending officials to the EU and I think this is just another effort in trying to do that on the eve of President Obama's trip to APEC in Beijing. So I think those are sort of the two approximate reasons.

WERTHEIMER: Victor Cha is a professor at Georgetown University. He is the former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Mr. Cha, thank you so much.

CHA: Thanks, it’s my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.