Spc. Dustin D. Biven/ Army file photo

Trump's First Big Breakthrough in North Korea Negotiations

American detainees who were held in Pyongyang are headed home.

President Trump announced Wednesday that three Americans who were detained in North Korea are now free, marking perhaps the most significant success so far in the Trump administration’s negotiations with the regime in Pyongyang.

Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, was in North Korea Tuesday to pin down details of Trump’s upcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, and to persuade the North Koreans to release the Americans.  

“We have been asking for the release of these detainees for … 17 months,” Pompeo told reporters en route to North Korea. “We’ll talk about it again today. I think it’d be a great gesture if they would choose to do so.”

The three Americans are Kim Dong Chul, who was detained in North Korea in October 2015, charged with espionage, and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor; Kim Sang Duk, who is also known as Tony Kim, who was detained April 2017; and Kim Hak Song, also known as Jin Xue Song, who was detained in May 2017. The last two men taught at universities in Pyongyang and were accused of committing unspecified “hostile acts” against North Korea. News of their impending release was made public last week, perhaps inadvertently, by Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who is now Trump’s lawyer, but the U.S. State Department said Giuliani was speaking for himself.

A subsequent White House statement said, “The three Americans appear to be in good condition and were all able to walk on the plane without assistance.”

Their release comes nearly a year after the death of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old University of Virginia student who spent more than a year in a North Korean prison. Warmbier was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda sign from his hotel. North Korea, which freed him in June 2017, said he was stricken with botulism soon after he was sentenced and was given a sleeping pill, after which he fell into a coma. But U.S. medical officials said he exhibited no signs of botulism. U.S.–North Korean relations, never good at the best of times, slipped to a new low after Warmbier’s death. What followed in the subsequent months showed just how low they could go.

As North Korea tested one intercontinental ballistic missile after another, interspersing them with a nuclear test, tensions on the Korean peninsula rose. Trump threatened “fire and fury” in response; he and Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, traded personal insults and military threats. As Kim boasted about his country’s nuclear-weapons capability, Trump showed off his nuclear “button,” and U.S. lawmakers played up the possibility of a preemptive nuclear strike on North Korea. The Trump administration said, as all U.S. administrations typically do, that all options were on the table. Kim announced in January that his country had completed its nuclear deterrent against the United States, “which no force and nothing can reverse.”

Yet within those remarks, there was an opening: Kim also said he wished that the upcoming South Korean Winter Olympics would be a success. And just like that, there was a breakthrough. Officials from the two Koreas met for the first time in two years to discuss North Korea’s participation in the game, and announced that they would hold military talks to reduce tensions. The two sides then announced they would not only march together under one flag at the Winter Olympics, but also field a joint women’s ice-hockey team.

South Korean President Moon Jae In, who was elected last year on a pledge to improve relations with North Korea, credited Trump for the rapprochement. Trump suspended the U.S.–South Korean joint military exercises during the Olympics and the subsequent inter-Korean summit—Pyongyang views these exercises as an act of war.

The games presented a potential diplomatic opportunity for the Trump administration, which dispatched Vice President Mike Pence for the games’ opening ceremony and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, for the closing ceremony. Kim sent his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to attend the opening ceremony, and Kim Yong Chol, a former spymaster, to the closing ceremony. The occasions provided little more than photo opportunities (where Pence did his best not to smile). Expectations that Pence would leave with the American prisoners did not materialize.

But even if U.S.–North Korean relations did not seem to improve very much, ties between Seoul and Pyongyang did. Moon credited Trump for his role in bringing the two Koreas together, as he announced a summit meeting with his Kim, the North Korean leader. The American president gave his “blessing” to a peace treaty between the two Koreas that would officially end the 1950–53 Korean War. (The conflict ended with an armistice.) Amid the historic nature of that meeting came another unexpected announcement: Kim was ready to meet with Trump and was ready to renounce his nuclear-weapons program.

Trump responded saying he would meet with Kim very soon, but no date, nor a venue, has yet been announced. Trump also announced that Pompeo, in his last days as CIA director, had secretly met with Kim in Pyongyang. Pompeo came away from the meeting saying he believed a deal on North Korea’s nuclear weapons was possible.

Trump’s announcement Wednesday is a validation of his maximum-pressure-maximum-engagement policy with North Korea. Or at least that’s one way to look at it. After all, Kim has said he’d pause nuclear and missile tests, as well as shut down a nuclear test site, and released three American prisoners, while the U.S. has been firm about the idea that it it hasn’t asked the Pentagon to draft a plan to reduce U.S. forces in South Korea. In other words, the U.S. has gotten a lot from the North without giving up much in return.

But another way of looking at it is to note that the Trump administrations has so far given the North Korean regime what it craves—international legitimacy—while mostly getting the very same North Korean pledges that the regime has violated in the past. Although the release of the American prisoners is good news for the prisoners themselves and their families, North Korea has a long history of arresting Americans who are in the country and using them as bargaining chips in the pursuit of some national-security goal. Additionally for a pariah state under international sanctions, photo ops with Pence, Ivanka Trump, Pompeo, and possibly Trump are a publicity coup that Kim can use to tell his own people that North Korea is indeed a respected nation and further burnish the cult of personality he has cultivated like his father and grandfather before him. For this he has done little except make pledges that past North Korean leaders, Kim’s father and grandfather, have also made. His pledge to denuclearize may differ from what U.S. and South Korean officials understand by that term. His demand for a security guarantee from the U.S. may also diverge from what the Trump administration is prepared to give.  

We have been at this moment before—several times. Indeed, even the language of the statement signed by the two Koreas during the recent summit meeting was similar to joint communiqués, agreements, and statements signed in 1972, 1992, 2000, and 2007. All of those occasions ended with North Korea getting sanctions relief before being discovered to be cheating on its international obligations. This time may be different, however. Already we have the prospect of an unprecedented summit meeting between an American president and a North Korean leader. This meeting could lead to the kind of deal with North Korea Trump has been promising since before he was elected. The prisoner release puts him one step closer to that goal.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.