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Commentary on the Release of American Detainees from North Korea

Jean H. Lee

"It was absolutely imperative that the Trump Administration secure the release of the three Americans well before any summit....However, there is a risk to coupling the detainees’ release with diplomatic engagement," writes Jean H. Lee.

Commentary on the Release of American Detainees from North Korea

The release of the three Americans detained in North Korea is good news for their families, first and foremost. Tony Kim, who was detained in April 2017, will get to see a grandchild for the first time, a baby born to his son while he was held in a North Korean prison on suspicion of committing “hostile acts.”

It was absolutely imperative that the Trump Administration secure the release of the three Americans well before any summit. It would have been inappropriate to push forward with plans to stage a summit between the leaders of North Korea and the United States, two countries in a technical state of war, with three Americans in North Korean custody. 

However, there is a risk to coupling the detainees’ release with diplomatic engagement. With the release taking place just before the anticipated summit with President Trump, Kim Jong Un will be able to go into these talks with the benefit of magnanimity for having freed the Americans on humanitarian grounds. That “good will” gesture gives him additional leverage. If things go awry, he’ll have a face-saving way of claiming he made a significant effort to reach out to Washington — and was rebuffed, despite his best intentions.

The sequencing of the release just before the anticipated summit also threatens to reward North Korea for an odious pattern of seizing Americans under questionable circumstances and often without charge. People should not be used as pawns in diplomacy and to lure high-level American officials to Pyongyang.

Listen to an interview with Jean H. Lee on NPR>>>>>

About the Author

Jean H. Lee

Jean H. Lee

Director, Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy,
Journalist and former Pyongyang Bureau Chief, Associated Press
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Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy

The Center for Korean History and Public Policy was established in 2015 with the generous support of the Hyundai Motor Company and the Korea Foundation to provide a coherent, long-term platform for improving historical understanding of Korea and informing the public policy debate on the Korean peninsula in the United States and beyond.  Read more

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