Hostage Release Seen as Part of N. Korea’s Chess Game



William Gallo/VOA News

North Korea’s release of three U.S. citizens may help pave the way for talks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, but questions remain as to whether those talks will succeed.

At the White House on Wednesday, Trump continued to speak cautiously about the coming summit, even while praising the North Korean leader for the prisoner release.

“Everything can be scuttled,” Trump told reporters. “A lot of things can happen — a lot of good things can happen, [and] a lot of bad things can happen.”

Positive gesture

North Korea on Wednesday granted amnesty to three Americans of Korean descent. They had been accused of espionage or trying to overthrow the government, charges widely seen as bogus.

Pyongyang has detained at least 16 Americans over the past two decades, often attempting to use them as bargaining chips. All were eventually released, although Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old college student, died shortly after returning to the United States last year.

A White House statement Wednesday praised North Korea’s latest prisoner release as a “positive gesture of goodwill” ahead of the Trump-Kim summit, which is expected to take place as soon as next month.

South Korea’s presidential office said Pyongyang’s decision was a “very positive” sign for a successful North Korea-U.S. meeting.

‘The least the North Koreans could do’

The freeing of the prisoners coincided with a visit to Pyongyang by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who declined to say whether the release was a U.S. precondition for holding talks with the North.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Pompeo told reporters on the flight home. “It would have been more difficult [had the prisoners not been released]. … I’m glad that we don’t have to confront that.”

It’s not clear what, if anything, the U.S. gave up in exchange for the prisoners. It’s not even clear a concession was needed, since North Korea has for decades sought the presumed legitimacy provided by a summit with a sitting U.S. president.

“It was the least the North Koreans could do,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, who focuses on nonproliferation issues at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Regardless of whether the release was a stated U.S. precondition, Fitzpatrick says it was a “matter of course” that the Americans had to be freed to create conditions for talks between Trump and Kim.

“I think you don’t even have to state something like this; it’s so clear,” he said.

Conciliatory language

But as Trump himself hinted, it’s far from certain North Korea will agree to give up its nuclear weapons at the talks. Pyongyang has in the past promised to dismantle nuclear facilities, only to later renege on its decision.

Still, the prisoner release amounts to a foreign policy victory for Trump, and caps a dramatic reversal from the contentious mood of several months ago, when Trump and Kim regularly exchanged insults and threats of nuclear war.

That stunning reversal was on display Wednesday in Pyongyang, when Pompeo called North Korea a “great partner” in helping set up the discussions.

That conciliatory language could be an attempt to placate North Korean officials, who have complained whenever Trump credits his “maximum pressure” campaign for bringing North Korea to the table.

Aidan Foster-Carter, a longtime North Korea specialist, says Pompeo’s more diplomatic approach reflects an attempt to ensure the talks go smoothly. And he says that has many historical precedents.

“When [former U.S. official] Henry Kissinger flew secretly to China all those years ago, he didn’t greet Chairman Mao [Zedong] with, ‘Hello, you mass murderer, how are you today?’ ” Foster-Carter said. “You have other goals.”

One goal was getting the Americans home. The other was ensuring the summit at least takes place.

“We often describe North Korea as unpredictable, but this must have been one of the most predictable, and indeed widely predicted, events,” Foster-Carter said. “I don’t think the summit could have gone ahead while they were still in jail.”