DENVER – North Korea’s recent announcement that it will not allow any foreign tourists to cross its borders, in order to protect itself from Ebola, evoked chuckles around the world. “The Ebola virus should know better than to visit that place,” observers quipped. Even as global developments unfold at a dizzying pace, North Korea seems to plod along rather consistently in a sort of Stalinist netherworld. But that netherworld’s growing nuclear arsenal is no laughing matter.
North Korea’s apparent immutability makes any unexpected development seem like a sign that something major is afoot. When a month passed without new footage of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, international observers eagerly speculated about his health, personal security, and hold on power. After all, they reasoned, Kim would not have missed attending important events, including a ceremony honoring his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-Sung, unless something serious had occurred.
No sooner had Kim returned to the spotlight, sporting a limp and a cane, than the regime sparked a fresh round of speculation by releasing Jeffrey Fowle, a 56-year-old American who had been detained for months for leaving a Bible in a hotel room. Having been forsaken by its few allies in recent years, North Korea, outsiders assume, feels more isolated than ever. Against this background, Fowle’s release, which apparently carried no quid pro quo, has been interpreted as a sign of the regime’s readiness to initiate a long-awaited dialogue with the United States.
But any assessment of North Korea’s intentions at this point is mere guesswork, and the release of one detainee does not make for convincing evidence. What is certain is that the absence of any sustained meaningful dialogue with North Korea is a source of serious concern.