Analysis, Foreign Affairs

President Personally Welcomes American Citizen Detainees from North Korea: New Procedure with Risks

In 2009, two American journalists were imprisoned for five months by the North Korean government after they briefly, but unwisely, illegally set foot on North Korean soil. Since that time, more than 14 American citizens have been detained by Pyongyang. (Wikipedia has a list of the fourteen who have been discussed publicly in the media.)

On May 10 around 3:00 AM, the three most recent Americans citizens detained by North Korea were personally welcomed home to the United States at Joint Base Andrews by President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump under a brightly illuminated massive American flag before a rugby scrum of jostling reporters and cameramen.

The three returning American citizens are:

  • Kim Dong Chul, a naturalized American who previously lived in Fairfax, Virginia, and more recently managed a trading and hotel services firm in Rason, a special economic zone on the northeast coast of North Korea near the border with Russia and China. He was arrested in October 2015 and was imprisoned for 30 months.
  • Kim Sang-duk (Tony Kim), an accountant who taught accounting and financial management at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). This privately-funded independent college located in Pyongyang and largely funded by contributions from Americans, individuals in the Korean ethnic areas of China, and South Koreans. In addition to his teaching at PUST, Tony Kim was also apparently involved in humanitarian efforts for orphans in North Korea. He was arrested April 21, 2017 and was imprisoned for over a year.
  • Kim Hak-song, an agricultural specialist who taught courses in agriculture at PUST. He was also involved in humanitarian activities outside his teaching, and he was imprisoned for a full year after being detained on May 7, 2017. PUST has emphasized that none of the activities for which these two men were apparently arrested involved their teaching at PUST.

The arrest, detention, and treatment by North Korea of these three men followed much the same pattern that was followed in the treatment of other American citizens arrested over the past decade. The recent return of these three detainees and the way in which they were welcomed back from Pyongyang, however, has a number of unique features that suggest significant changes by the Trump Administration from procedures that have been followed by previous administration over the previous decade.

These three recently released American citizens were brought first from North Korea to Washington, D.C., where they were personally greeted on their arrival by the President and First Lady, who were on hand at Joint Base Andrews near Washington, D.C., to greet them around 3:00 AM. (The media gave extensive coverage to the arrival and President’s statement. See CNN, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and The Washington Post, among the many reporting on the event.) The President and First Lady did not just greet the three individuals as they came down the stairs, but they went into the cabin of the plane to personally and privately welcome the three, and they brought the three out to introduce them to the media mob on the tarmac.

[One hopes that the three American citizens were briefed in advance of what was going on and that they were told in advance the President of the United States would greet them. Having been held under difficult conditions in a North Korean prison for one to two-and-a-half years, they had no access to international news or even to North Korean newspapers, television, or radio. The three American citizens probably had little if any access to information about American politics for the past year. The prisoner who was detained the longest, probably did not know that Donald Trump was president, since he was arrested before the 2016 election.]

In contrast to this media-centric welcome gala, when previous American citizens held in the North were released, they were not brought to Washington, D.C., but were taken to a location near their homes where they were greeted by their families. For example, Kenneth Bae, an American citizen who spent two years in North Korean prisons (November 2012-November 2014), and Matthew Todd Miller (who was imprisoned for seven months, April-November 2014), were released together on November 8, 2014. They were taken to a military base south of Seattle, Washington. There Bae’s mother and sister were waiting for him, and Miller’s family was on hand to greet their son. The American official who arranged the release and brought the detainees back, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, did not intrude in the family reunion in Seattle.

President Barack Obama told reporters at the White House the following day in an understated response to a media query, “It’s a wonderful day for them and their families. We’re grateful for their safe return.” He also thanked Clapper for his unusual role in negotiating the prisoners’ freedom, saying it “was obviously a challenging mission.” (The Washington Post.)

In a striking departure from previous practice, when the three American citizens were publicly welcomed back at Joint Base Andrews last Thursday, members of the families of the detainees were NOT even permitted at the airport, although a number of family members had come to Washington when they were informed of the release. A CNN reporter was told: “No family members or friends of the three freed Americans were on hand for their arrival in the early hours of Thursday due to protocol reasons, a U.S. official told CNN. The official added the men had to first debrief intelligence officials before heading to their homes.”

There were, however, no “protocol reasons” preventing a myriad of media reporters from being present on the occasion. It is not clear what the “protocol reasons” were which prohibited the presence of the long-suffering family members who had been forcibly separated from being with their loved ones for over a year or more.

Furthermore, it appears that family members were not permitted to see the released prisoners for several days. The detainees arrived early on Thursday morning, but they were then taken to be examined at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. They were not released until Sunday, May 13. Press reports indicate that family members who traveled to Washington were not able to see the released prisoners until Sunday when they were released from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. (Chicago Tribune, CBS News/AP).

In the past when Americans were released after imprisonment in North Korea, they were treated at civilian hospitals or civilian medical facilities if they required medical assistance. It is not clear if sending these former prisoners to a military medical facility is another indication of the militarization of American foreign policy or if this is the result of the non-involvement of officials from the Department of State’s Office of American Citizen Affairs, whose responsibility it is to deal with the needs and issues of American citizens imprisoned abroad. That office played the leading role in the past in matters involving American citizens detained in North Korea.

The Trump Administration’s procedures for dealing with the release of American citizens held in North Korea is decidedly different. It is not clear why these changes were made. There have been no indications that there were any problems or issues related to the way it was handled in the past under the Department of State. It may, however, be an effort to control media access and media messaging in connection with the release.

There is also a concern that making the release of imprisoned American citizens by North Korea a massive media event involving the President personally may raise the price the North Koreans expect for the next American citizen release. If the President’s prestige and leadership are on the line, North Korean Kim Jong-un may feel empowered to make greater demands. Is President Trump now indebted to the North Korean leader for a publicity boost? Does Kim Jong-un think he is, and will he seek to drive a harder bargain before giving the President another high-profile event?

Releasing American citizens, who were detained for spurious reasons in the first place, might better be handled with less fanfare to discourage attempts to exploit future incidents.

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.