Let’s End Pyongyang’s Game of Political Detentions

Top: Bill Clinton and Al Gore with Laura Ling and Euna Lee in August 2009 (AFP/Robyn Beck/Getty Images); Middle: Jimmy Carter with Aijalon Gomes in August 2010 (AP Photo/APTN); Bottom: Donald J. Trump and Melania Trump with Kim Dong Chul, Tony Kim, and Kim Hak-song in May 2018 (White House/D. Myles Cullen).

No one can fail to rejoice at the release of the three American prisoners detained for more than a year in North Korea—businessman Kim Dong Chul and two teachers from the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song. But their release, although portrayed by the Trump Administration as an exceptional event, was only the latest in a long series of arresting Americans, sentencing them to lengthy prison terms—on specious charges—and then releasing them. Indeed, the detention and freeing of American citizens by North Korea has become a routine practice. Fifteen Americans have been arrested and released by North Korea over the past nine years, with high level US negotiators sometimes having to shuttle back and forth to Pyongyang. Former President Bill Clinton negotiated the release of two Americans, former President Jimmy Carter interceded for another, while National Intelligence director, James R. Clapper, Jr. and other senior officials have helped free still more. In return, North Korea generally benefited politically from the high-level attention and sometimes requested food aid.

In this case, US President Trump publicly thanked the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and called him “nice” for releasing the three prior to their now cancelled summit meeting earlier planned for June 12.[1] However, the United States had actually made the release of the three a condition for the summit. It would have been unthinkable for the US President to sit down and talk with Kim Jong Un without the return of the three Americans. One had been sentenced to ten years’ hard labor and all three were charged with “hostile acts,” spying or other crimes, without any semblance of due process and denied regular visits by the US protecting power, Sweden, and direct contacts with their families.

Anxiety over the condition of the three was reinforced by the fate of Otto Warmbier, the American student imprisoned in North Korea in 2016 and returned to the United States last year in a coma from which he did not recover. The brutal treatment of Warmbier in some unfortunate respect has become the benchmark for evaluating the treatment of the other three American prisoners held by North Korea. That standard should be kept in mind when considering President Trump’s comment that North Korea had been “excellent to these three.”[2] Their lengthy interrogations, the near darkness in which they were held, the hard labor to which they were subject, the mail that never reached one prisoner’s family gives only an early indication of what that standard means.

Although the summit is now off, the issue of the arrest of American citizens remains to be dealt with. In any future talks, the US should insist that Pyongyang’s game of political detentions must come to an end. The arrest of Americans for political or economic benefit should no longer be an accepted part of the US-DPRK relationship. Since the tragic Warmbier case, Americans have been basically barred from travelling to North Korea. However, if summit discussions move forward, Americans will again want to travel there and must be able to do so in safety, whether on humanitarian or agricultural missions, for tourism, for business, or to teach at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (where at least 50 percent of the faculty until recently were American). In addition, many Americans of Korean origin may want to visit their relatives in the North, from whom they’ve been separated since the Korean War. Clearly, agreement will need to be reached with North Korea about fundamental rules of travel, free movement and tourism and the conventions that apply to the treatment of other states’ nationals. In particular, under Article 36 of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, North Korea is obliged to provide “essential protections” to foreigners in custody.[3]

The Trump Administration should also insist upon an honest accounting of what happened to Otto Warmbier, with full compensation paid to the family. Accepting responsibility and offering compensation could help establish trust and open the way for Americans to resume travel to North Korea.

US citizens have not been the only target of Pyongyang’s political detentions. Six South Koreans are currently incarcerated on political grounds, arrested and sentenced without due process for alleged espionage and other “hostile acts” and denied visits from family members and consular officials. Three have been sentenced to hard labor for the rest of their lives. South Korea should condition any offer of humanitarian aid or the resumption of the Kaesong Industrial Complex on the release of these six prisoners. Trump Administration officials have said the President would take up these cases with North Korea in the future.

Additionally, the Japanese were among the first to be targeted by the North Korean regime for abductions decades ago. Prime Minister Abe of Japan has asked President Trump to raise with Kim Jong Un the still unresolved cases of Japanese abductees. Of 17 officially recognized cases, five were allowed to depart North Korea in 2002. Although those abducted have not been imprisoned, most if not all have been held against their will. Those who remain alive and their families have not been allowed to go to Japan to visit their relatives or return to their home country. Others have not been accounted for. President Trump has met with the families of abductees when in Japan and, at Prime Minister’s Abe’s request, agreed to take up this issue.

More broadly, the holding of foreigners in North Korea in substandard conditions recalls the longstanding imprisonment of many of North Korea’s own nationals in the most brutal conditions in political prison camps. North Korea’s earlier readiness to discuss with the United States the release of the three Americans must open a door at some later point to discussions about the plight of its own prisoners and the need for international humanitarian organizations to have access to them as a part of normalizing relations with the United States and international community. As the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights on the DPRK recently observed, “As peace talks progress, a comprehensive assessment of the overall penitentiary system in North Korea will become unavoidable.”[4]

North Korea’s political prisoners must no longer be considered an internal question; over the past decade they have become a subject of international concern with attention drawn to them each year by resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly as well as by the State Department’s Human Rights Reports. Since 2016, Congress has required the State Department and other government agencies to report on conditions in North Korea’s camps. And American sanctions have been leveled against senior North Koreans complicit in the practices in the prisons. Under US law, the lifting of those sanctions is now contingent on the calibrated release of political prisoners and the dismantlement of North Korea’s political prison camps.

Although North Korea warned South Korea against raising human rights issues at their summit, the United States must make clear that any improvement in political relations with North Korea will have to take account of the human rights concerns of the United States government, the Congress, and the people.


  1. [1]

    David Nakamura and John Wagner, “Trump and Kim to meet in Singapore,” Washington Post, May 11, 2018.

  2. [2]

    Ibid.

  3. [3]
  4. [4]

    UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Press Release, “Release of U.S. nationals by North Korea: A welcome step to further address human rights concerns, says UN expert,” Geneva, May 10, 2018.


Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads: