Kim Jong Un Freed American Prisoners to Seize Diplomatic Advantage at Trump-Kim Summit
The ban was imposed mostly to limit tourism, even though none of the three released Americans were tourists. Warmbier was, but his case, though horrid, was rare. Much of the fault appeared to lie with the group, Young Pioneer Tours, which organized his trip and was reported by the British press to have engaged in disturbing behavior. When visiting North Korea last June I spoke with the head of a humanitarian group who investigated the roughly fourteen cases of Americans who had been arrested in recent years. She commented that none were detained without cause in the sense that they broke North Korean rules. Clearly, those violations didn’t warrant such punishment, but there are plenty of other countries in which visitors also need to be cautious about breaking local laws.
Moreover, any kind of détente will require Americans to visit, not just for leisure, but for business, to teach, or as humanitarian workers, journalists, and policy analysts. I’ve gone twice in the last capacity and learned much. In turn, foreigners educate North Koreans and by their very presence refute regime propaganda. The best hope for peaceful transformation of the North will be from the inside. For this reason, the greater the foreign contact the better chance such change will happen.
North Korea’s release of the three Americans most obviously benefits them. Even though the immediate political gains go to the Trump administration, Kim Jong-un expects his gambit to yield significant benefits when the real negotiations get underway. So far the seeming amateur in Pyongyang is playing the diplomacy game like a seasoned professional.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and coauthor of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.