May 10, 2018 | Policy Brief

Pompeo Returns from North Korea with Three U.S. Hostages

Early this morning, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returned from North Korea along with all three Americans held hostage by the Kim regime. It was Pompeo’s second trip to Pyongyang and reflects the momentum building toward the summit between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, which has now been confirmed for June 12 in Singapore.

The release of the three Americans detained in North Korea – Dong Chul Kim, Sang Duk “Tony” Kim, and Hak Song Kim – is a diplomatic victory for the Trump administration. The North Koreans detained Dong Chul Kim in 2015, while the others were taken hostage in the spring of 2017.

President Trump tweeted that the three men seem to be in “good health.” They arrived at Andrews Air Force Base early this morning. While the release of the hostages is very welcome, North Korea’s exploitation of them as bargaining chips remains deplorable. A North Korean official reportedly told Pompeo that releasing the Americans was a hard decision and the U.S. should ensure the men do “not make the same mistake again.” This implicit threat affirms the wisdom of the Trump administration’s decision last year to impose a ban on U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea. 

The second objective of Secretary Pompeo’s trip was to “pin down the location, timing, and agenda” of the Trump-Kim summit. In Pyongyang, Secretary Pompeo held substantive talks about the summit’s agenda. Pompeo noted his confidence that the U.S. government “will set the conditions for a successful meeting between the two leaders.”

At the same time, there are signs that North Korea’s commitment to denuclearization is questionable. Just a day before Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang, Kim Jong Un traveled to Dalian, China to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. Kim also held a summit with Xi before Pompeo’s initial visit in April.

During both Xi-Kim summits, Kim called for a “step-by-step” and “synchronized” denuclearization process, which is directly at odds with the Trump administration’s call for an immediate, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization. If Kim Jong Un keeps rejecting rapid denuclearization, it strongly suggests he has no interest in denuclearization at all. North Korea has long favored a “phased” approach to disarmament, mainly in order to drag out the negotiating process and continue extorting concessions from the U.S. and South Korea. If Trump and Kim arrive in Singapore with such different expectations, it could lead to failure and a return to the confrontation we saw last year.

The return home of three American hostages is a cause for celebration, yet the moment remains bittersweet given the tragic death of Otto Warmbier as a result of the trauma he endured in captivity. Furthermore, 24 million North Koreans continue to suffer every day under Kim’s brutal rule. The U.S. should continue its policy of maximum pressure to ensure North Korea’s rapid denuclearization, yet also must address its abhorrent human rights violations.

Mathew Ha is a research associate at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, focused on North Korea. Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk.

Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


North Korea