First published on The Conversation on 10 January 2013.
This episode is layered with intriguing angles encompassing WMD diplomacy, Christian missionary activity and the potential opening of the long-enclosed North Korean economy.
Bill Richardson has stated that the primary motivation is to advocate for the release of Korean-American tour guide Kenneth Bae, who has been imprisoned in North Korea since December. Richardson became involved in the Bae case after a direct solicitation for help from Bae’s son.
Bae operates a travel company called Nations Tours and has been a regular visitor to the DPRK. His arrest stems from anti-regime material found on the laptop of one of his tour participants.
In the past, foreign detainees in North Korea have been released after high profile private missions to Pyongyang, such as Bill Clinton’s visit in 2009 to facilitate the release of Korean-American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.
A spanner in the diplomatic engine
In contrast to Bill Clinton’s 2009 mission, Richardson and Schmidt leave for Pyongyang without the endorsement of the US government.
During a press briefing on January 3rd, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland clearly distanced the US government from Richardson and Schmidt’s trip:
“They are private citizens. They are travelling in an unofficial capacity. They are not going to be accompanied by any US officials. They are not carrying any messages from us. Frankly, we don’t think the timing of this is particularly helpful.”
The pair’s visit comes less than a month after North Korea’s successful long-range rocket launch on December 12.
For the State Department, the Richardson-Schmidt gambit is dangerous because if it is interpreted as a quasi-official mission, it could feed Pyongyang’s perception that provocation yields results in its diplomacy with Washington. Pyongyang has historically played a diplomatic game that utilises deliberate, directed provocations to obtain material rewards in exchange for de-escalation.
The US government also does not want to be trapped into a quid pro quo for Bae’s release, which could undermine its efforts to secure a strong UN Security Council resolution in response to Pyongyang’s December rocket launch. Such a buy-off could only embolden Pyongyang, legitimise its diplomatic tactics and encourage further provocative behaviour.
The missionary complication
Pyongyang was the epicentre of the spread of Christianity in Korea during the 19th Century; however North Korea today is a state which represses all forms of religious freedom. The regime understands that religion is a potential rallying post around which an organised resistance to regime rule can crystallise.
Pyongyang has good reason to fear Christian groups. American and South Korean fundamentalist Christian organisations have been at the forefront of campaigns for human rights in North Korea. Some are engaged in proselytising activities among ethnic Koreans in northeast China and within the DPRK itself and have helped North Korean refugees escape across the border into China.
Occasionally Christian groups engage in potentially destabilising provocations, such as the attempted release of balloons from the southern side of the DMZ carrying leaflets containing anti Kim-regime statements in October.
Kenneth Bae has a Christian missionary background and it has been suggested that his company Nations Tours may be a front for proselytising activity within the DPRK.
Tour operators to the DPRK generally make it very clear that tourists do not take provocative material like Christian literature into the country. To do so endangers not only the individual tourist but also the tour operator and their local North Korean guides.
If the North Korean version of Kenneth Bae’s arrest is correct, the proselytising activities of he and/or his tour group have created a tricky diplomatic situation at a time when North Korea’s relations with the United States are already tense.
Why the Google chairman?
The most intriguing question about this story is the participation of Eric Schmidt. Why is the chairman of Google travelling in a group whose state purpose is to advocate for the release of an American national?
Businessmen with interests in North Korea have suggested that Schmidt may have meetings with North Korean officials to promote technological and commercial exchanges with the US, or sow the seeds for Google to obtain market access should Pyongyang begin to relax online information controls.
Schmidt’s timing couldn’t be better, coming amidst speculation that Kim Jong Un is embarking on a tentative and gradual economic opening, as evidenced by Kim Jong Un’s new year’s address in which he emphasised developing the country’s scientific and technological capabilities to “fan the flames of the industrial revolution in the new century”.
Richardson and Schmidt’s private Pyongyang gambit illustrates the complexities of the diplomatic tango that regional states dance with the DPRK. Their arrival comes at a tense strategic moment and a pivotal juncture in the economic and technological evolution of the DPRK state.
Dr Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University.