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What led to North Korea’s release of American detainees Bae and Miller?

Last weekend, North Korea released two American detainees, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller. The deal that led to their release was negotiated by James Clapper, the U.S. National Intelligence Director. Adam Entous from The Wall Street Journal joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington with details on that deal.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS ANCHOR:

    Last weekend, we reported on the sudden, unexpected release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, two Americans who had been detained and then sentenced to lengthy prison terms in North Korea.

    The deal that led to their release was negotiated by James Clapper, the U.S. national intelligence director.

    For more about how the deal happened that, we are joined now from Washington by Adam Entous. Earlier this week, he co-authored an article describing the secret talks that ultimately led to freedom for Bae and Miller.

    So how did this come together and why DNI Clapper?

  • ADAM ENTOUS, The Wall Street Journal:

    Well, I mean, the North decided that it wanted a Cabinet-level emissary sent to come pick the two Americans.

    And when the Cabinet — when, you know, the national security advisers to the president looked around and tried to figure out who would — who would fit that bill, Clapper was a standout. I mean, he's an — he is an expert on the North and has been for a long time and spent time in the south of Korea when — you know, earlier in his career.

    So it was a natural pick. And he flew in. It was kind of a very bizarre scenario, where he literally flew in, wasn't sure he was going to be bringing them home, wasn't even sure what — what would be on the agenda for his meetings there.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And you said that they actually had a dossier on him and had specific intel on Clapper.

  • ADAM ENTOUS:

    Right.

    Yes. They — they knew the precise number of flights that he was on when he was based in the South, for example. He was — I think Clapper was surprised by that, that they had as much homework. And I think they were trying to impress — impress him with the amount of homework they had done.

    But what — what really struck him about visit was that the North really wanted him to be carrying some sort of broader peace overture, some — sort of breakthrough, instead of just coming to pick up the two Americans. And they were — they were very disappointed by that.

    And then he was very struck by what he saw as a generational gap between the younger generation and the older generation, the younger being more willing to deal with the West.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, walk us through the negotiation, if you could.

  • ADAM ENTOUS:

    Well, I wouldn't necessarily call it a negotiation.

    He — specifically, they chose Clapper because they didn't want to give the North the impression that this was a negotiation. He was basically there to receive the two Americans.

    He — he arrives, he gets in the limousine, he is brought to, you know, a guest house where they're putting him up. He has a — kind of a tense dinner that lasts for many hours. He describes it as — he had the best kimchi of his — of his life during that meal, but it was a — it was a tense encounter.

    He goes back to the guest house after the meal. He even isn't sure, you know, what is going to happen. During the meal, he gives a letter from the president to his interlocutor during the meal. And that letter basically just says that he's the envoy who was sent and that the U.S. would view the release of these two Americans as a goodwill gesture.

    He then — you know, the next day, he's — he's told at one point, you know, to pack his bags, that he was leaving. And he had no idea if the mission was then a failure. But it turned out that he picked up the Americans and then went — went back to the airport.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Any chance of him going back in further conversations?

  • ADAM ENTOUS:

    Yes, I mean, there was a — there was a suggestion, which he seemed open to, for a return visit.

    And, you know, he definitely came away with a sense that there was, in addition to this — this generational gap, there was this hunger on the part of the North to try to bring the U.S. into some sort of dialogue.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So what role does China play in all this, and has North Korean behavior changed over the past few months?

  • ADAM ENTOUS:

    Right.

    So — so, yes, I mean, I — I spoke on — last week to senior defense officials who have been tracking the North. And over the last two to three months, there's been a noticeable lack of aggressiveness on the part of the North, which — which contrasts with — with where the North has been during previous cycles in the relationship with the United States.

    So they have noticed this toning down of the aggressiveness of the North, which U.S. officials attribute, at least in part, to the Chinese, which have been sending messages. And they have certainly told their American counterparts that they have sent these messages to the North that they need to tone down their rhetoric and tone down their aggressive posture.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Adam Entous of "The Wall Street Journal," thanks so much for joining us.

  • ADAM ENTOUS:

    It was a pleasure.

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