Maintaining Diplomatic Momentum - Release of U.S. Detainees from North Korea

Korea Chair Snapshot

Three American citizens, Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim (Kim Sang-duk), and Kim Hak-song were released by the North Korean government. They were released to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was in Pyongyang today to discuss preparations with North Korean officials for the upcoming U.S.–North Korea summit. All three Americans are in good condition and will be arriving with Secretary Pompeo at 2:00 AM on May 10 at Andrews Air Force Base.
The three Americans had been detained in North Korea for more than a year. Tony Kim (since April 2017) and Kim Hak-song (since May 2017) were both teaching at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) when they were detained by the North Korean regime for alleged “hostile acts” against the regime. The third American Kim Dong-chul was a businessman formerly from Virginia who was detained in October 2015 for allegedly spying on the regime and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in April 2016.
  • This is a welcome development and a useful confidence-building measure leading up to the anticipated summit between the U.S. and North Korean leaders. 
  • Given that diplomacy is often about momentum, the next likely step might be North Korea inviting international media to view the shutdown of the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri.
  • The release of the three detainees does not absolve the regime of a history of human rights abuses that must be the topic of any discussion going forward on normalizing political relations between the U.S and North Korea. Since 2010, the North Korean regime has detained a total of twelve Americans, including Otto Warmbier, who faced a trial and tragically died after being released.
  • It is a good sign that the National Security Council and Department of State staff accompanied Secretary Pompeo, suggesting that more detailed pre-negotiations may be taking place to line up denuclearization deliverables for the summit.
  • The President’s tweets continue to raise expectations for his summit with Kim Jong-un, now anticipated to be in June. Engaging in a quiet phase of pre-negotiations away from the spotlight may be in order to reach fundamental agreements on denuclearization.
Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair