Awful Art, Torn Visas, and Reality: Comment on the Matthew Miller Affair

With respect to Matthew Miller, the American tourist who tore up his visa upon arrival in Pyongyang in April, was promptly arrested, paraded out as an effective hostage, and recently tried in a North Korean court:

One part of me wants to seize pen and paper for earnest memos to John Kerry or vocal engagement innovators like John Delury, saying of Miller: ‘Sure he’s more than slightly unusual and did something awfully stupid, but he’s ‘murcian, and needs our help!’ On the other hand, I’m not sure that recent media discussion around this particular person out helps achieve that end. The details of his case — unlike, say, digging further into the Kenneth Bae case — don’t get us any closer to understanding DPRK policy with respect to Christians, border security, cooperation with China, or even really diplomacy with the US, since he’s now one of a handful.

Perhaps that is a fairly mercenary view, but the alternative is to keep talking about Miller’s terrible art projects while letting, say, big piles of human rights reports, or new developments in the DPRK-Japan abduction negotiations — both of which are highly relevant — sit unread.

At the recent (and stunning) North Korean exiles conference in Leiden, I sat through eight panels, two keynotes and a press conference, all of which intently focused on how North Korea works. Suffice it to say that none of these speeches and statements by North Korea’s top defectors contained a single reference to Mr. Miller, much less his eccentricities, since they have very little consequence at this point. Journalists have to report on what they are able to, though, and I certainly understand the need to figure out why this young American ended up in Pyongyang in the first place. Be an optimist if you like, and interpret Mr. Miller’s case as a big possibility for breaking down the US-DPRK deadlock, and as a means of bringing a whole new segment of society — Steampunkers (?) — toward an interest in North Korean studies.  But in the meantime, I don’t think this is ‘Page 1’ material.

Andrei Lankov, as he has a way of doing, really nailed it with this assessment for AP, via the South China Morning Post:

“The North Koreans are in no hurry,” Lankov said. “It’s a sellers’ market. They say: ‘This is our price: a senior visit and some concessions. These are our goods, these Americans. If you don’t want to pay, that’s your problem. We can wait’.”

As for Mr. Miller’s personal eccentricities, now that they’ve entered the record, perhaps we can agree to move the discussion forward, say, to more concrete questions about North Korea’s legal system, why Pyongyang insists that Mr. Miller is behaving as a scheming enemy of the DPRK, why we can’t send Oprah Winfrey, and what connection (if any) this case ought to have to the broader flaming and poisoned expanses of swampland that are the present US-North Korean relationship.  


  1. You’re right that people have, and I think should, try and figure out what motivated him to go there. I’m not sure if the Alice stuff answers that question, but it certainly contributes to the idea that Miller has some of his own issues to deal with (and not, perhaps, that he is a politically motivated defector).

    But I am not sure why that means reports on North Korean human rights abuses are “unread” as you put it.

    1. James — the ‘unread’ reports was, I’m afraid, a reference to myself — but now I’ve blasted through the most recent documentation and hopeful to go ‘on the record’ about it in the next few days; perhaps there is unlimited bandwidth in the public’s ability to read North Korea, but as an individual there are only so many hours in the day and I’m afraid the Miller case, at least at present, is falling to a low priority for me to keep up with — unless somehow Sid Seiler is able to spring him on October 2 and the young man does not greet his 30th birthday in a North Korean labour camp en route to finally being released on the present schedule, which has him doing time until 2020, that’s not at all nice for him…

      1. No one is disputing that is not nice for him to be locked up in a bungalow on the outskirts of Pyongyang – but your post implied there was little worth in trying to find out why he went there because it doesn’t reveal anything about North Korean policy. On that point I disagree.

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