North Korea's release last week of its two remaining US detainees appears to have been aimed at easing the growing international pressure to improve its human rights record and its deepening isolation, analysts said Sunday.
The release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller is expected to create the momentum for dialogue between the US and the North at a time when Washington recognises the need to more actively tackle North Korea's increasing missile and nuclear threats.
Washington announced Saturday that the communist state had set free Bae and Miller. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper visited the North as a presidential envoy and accompanied them on their way back to the US
Bae, a Korean-American missionary, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour after being detained in late 2012 for unspecified antistate crimes. Miller was detained in April and later sentenced to six years of hard labour for committing "hostile" acts. Late last month, a third US detainee Jeffrey Fowle was freed.
Their release came as the international community is seeking to pass a North Korean human rights resolution that calls on the country's woeful rights record to the International Criminal Court. The resolution is expected to be adopted in mid-December, and the North has demanded that mention of the ICC referral be removed from it.
"I think that it was an emergency measure by the North to ease the international pressure with regard to North Korea's human rights violations. Pyongyang might have demanded that the US not be at the vanguard of the efforts to bring the North Korean situation to the ICC," said Ahn Chan-il, the head of the World North Korea Research Center.
Ahn added that after a defeat in the midterm elections, US President Barack Obama might have felt some pressure to address the issue of the two Americans detained in the North and seek a turnaround in the deadlock with Pyongyang.
"Washington announced the release after the election, although their agreement on the release might have been made before the election. So I think the Obama administration, to a certain degree, has sought to make up for the election loss through the release," he said.
"The release would, after all, be part of his Democratic Party's foreign policy feats, and on the back of this release, the relationship between the US and North Korea could improve to a certain extent."
Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University, noted that the release came as the North was making all-out efforts to block the UN moves to bring its rights record to the international court.
"In the past, the North used to shrug off the international criticism of its human rights situation by denying any violations or turning a blind eye to it. But it has recently been very active in easing the pressure by publishing its official report on human rights and actively explaining its rights policy," he said.
"The North appears to think that it may have to accept the universal human rights norm to become part of the international community and to improve its external relations to help shore up its debilitated economy."
Koh added that the momentum for dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang might add pressure on Seoul to make more efforts to improve cross-border relations.
"Following the release, the criticism in the media could soon emerge that the South is the only party that is passive in improving ties with the North, when Japan has sought negotiations with the North and the US moving toward dialogue with the North," he said.
Seoul has sought to improve ties with its northern neighbour through high-level talks. But Pyongyang has argued that there would not be talks until Seoul blocks its civilian groups from flying balloons carrying anti-North Korea leaflets.
Seoul welcomed the release of the two Americans and called on the North to free a South Korean missionary, Kim Jeong-wook. It also demanded that Pyongyang take steps to resolve humanitarian issues between the two Koreas including the reunions of families separated after the 1950-53 Korean War.
US President Obama hailed the release, saying it was a "wonderful day" for them and their families. After announcing his choice for attorney general, he added that the US is "very grateful for their safe return."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that he is "relieved that they are safely returning home and commends the work of international partners in helping to secure their release."
Ban expressed hopes that "this positive momentum for improving relations among the concerned parties for peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and beyond will be built on."