CNN Enlists Failed Diplomats to Criticize the Return of Americans From a North Korean Prison

FILE – In this March 7, 2018, file photo, people watch a TV screen showing images of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, and U.S. President Donald Trump at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has always wanted to lead the diplomacy aimed at ending the North Korean nuclear crisis, even as he was overshadowed in his first year in office by a belligerent standoff between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. Korean letters on the screen read: “Thawing Korean Peninsula.” (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)



Early tomorrow morning, President Trump will be at Joint Base Andrews to welcome Secretary of State Mike Pompeo home from a trip to North Korea. With Pompeo will be three American citizens who had been detained by the North Koreans.

  • Tony Kim, detained since April 23, 2017: He spent a month teaching accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. A source told Reuters that his arrest was not related to his teaching: “He had been involved with some other activities outside P.U.S.T., such as helping an orphanage.”
  • Kim Hak-song, detained since May 6, 2017: He also worked at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Per the Times, “it was not clear whether his arrest was connected with that of Tony Kim two weeks earlier.”
  • Kim Dong-chul, detained since 2015: The most mysterious of the prisoners, the Times reports that “Mr. Kim appeared at a government-arranged news conference in Pyongyang [in March 2016] and apologized for trying to steal military secrets in collusion with South Koreans.”


Rumors of this release started swirling last week when a South Korean group made an announcement to the effect that the men had been moved from labor camps to a hotel in Pyongyang and release was imminent. On Wednesday night, President Trump teased the release in a tweet.

After an initial period of ignoring the story, by this weekend the media was becoming openly skeptical that a release would actually happen. And, now that it happened, the Banana Network, CNN, is really, really unhappy at how it did happen: Trump hinting at the release of detained Americans alarms former diplomats. Thankfully, they are former diplomats because these opinions will go a long way towards explaining the sad state of American diplomacy. (No word if FusionGPS contributed to this story but CNN is their go-to network.)

“It doesn’t take an expert to recognize that negotiations about detained US citizens can be extremely delicate,” Mintaro Oba, a former Korea desk officer at the State Department under Obama, told CNN on Monday.

“Raising expectations in public is a dangerous game, one that can signal to the other country that you now have a lot more to lose if the deal falls through,” he said.


True, if the context of the release were a straightforward prisoner release. That was not the case here. The prisoner release was simply one part of a much larger negotiation, one that North Korea desperately needs. By teasing the release, Trump basically locked the North Koreans in. If they pulled the plug on the release it would be a personal affront to Trump and make it very unlikely that the Trump-Kim meeting would take place.

Bill Richardson, the former US energy secretary, ambassador and repeat US envoy to North Korea, told CNN on Monday that these “negotiations are best conducted quietly, privately” but while their comments were premature, Trump and Giuliani likely did not not jeopardize the release of the three Americans.

“North Korea wants to release them” but also wants to “control the message and logistics of the release,” Richardson said.

“I would urge the President and Rudy to be cautious and not say anything — let diplomacy run its course,” he added.

What the diplomats are discovering…and future presidents would be wise to take note of it…is that they are not an ordained priesthood empowered to do diplomacy. Diplomacy is an executive function and diplomats carry out rather than make foreign policy. To Richardson’s point, though, what do we gain from letting North Korea “control the message and logistics of the release?” How do we further our objectives by acting as though the North Koreans are in the catbird seat in these negotiations when they clearly aren’t? By taking the lead on the announcement and leaving the North Koreans to carry out what had already been promised on their behalf the US position is bolstered and the North Koreans are not seen as controlling the pace.


Joseph Yun, who until March was the administration’s top diplomat working on North Korea issues, said last week it was “worrisome” that Trump’s allies would tout a release before it’s complete.

“We really shouldn’t be talking about their release, nobody should be talking about their release, until it happens because any kind of real speculation sends the wrong signals and could jeopardize them,” said Yun, who is now a CNN global affairs analyst.

Again, this misses the context of what happened. This prisoner release did not happen as a discrete event but as part of a larger diplomatic strategy that started back in the Winter Olympic Games.

According to Oba, Trump and Giuliani may have also missed an opportunity to secure a political victory by prematurely speaking out.

“What Trump and Giuliani also doesn’t make much sense politically,” Oba said.

“Trump would have benefited a lot more if he had managed expectations until the summit, and then unveiled the release of US detainees as a “win” for himself,” he added.

Easy to say if you aren’t the guy being held in a North Korean prison. Actually, this is the way that his suggestion would have played out. CNN would be reporting how the North Koreans totally pwned Trump by releasing the prisoners and how come Trump left these guys in prison when he should have demanded their release as a prerequisite to the meeting.


This is just sour grapes spun by people who were colossal and epic failures in dealing with North Korea when they had the chance and by CNN.


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