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Releasing American hostages from North Korea, explained by a top US hostage negotiator

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has spent decades trying to bring home Americans held hostage in North Korea.

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson meets with a North Korean official in 2003. Richardson has spent decades working to secure the release of American hostages from North Korea.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson meeting with a North Korean official in 2003. Richardson has spent decades working to secure the release of American hostages from North Korea.
Rick Scibelli/Getty Images

North Korea just released three American hostages, President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday morning.

Last week, reports showed North Korea had moved the hostages — Tony Kim, Kim Hak-song, and Kim Dong-chul — from brutal prison camps to a hotel outside of Pyongyang. Now, they are on a plane with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo headed back to the US, where they will land around 2 am on Thursday, Trump wrote on Twitter.

It’s a great moment for the three men and their families. But it’s also a huge win for Trump, who has had remarkable success securing the release of US hostages abroad. But things haven’t always gone well. On June 13, 2017, North Korea released Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American, who was held in the country for 17 months — but he returned home in a coma, likely due to his time in prison, and died six days later from brain injuries. (North Korea denies torturing Warmbier, and a US coroner report last September found no obvious signs of torture.)

Before Trump’s announcement, I reached out to former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has spent decades negotiating hostage releases with North Korea. I wanted to know why North Korea would release the prisoners, in what kind of medical condition they might return, and what it’s like to negotiate such a life-or-death issue with North Koreans.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alex Ward

How does the process of getting American hostages out of North Korea actually work?

Bill Richardson

You work on it a long time. You have contacts with the North Korean mission at the UN, through the State Department, or unofficial sources like my foundation, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement.

This is a case where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo probably said to the North Korean leader, “Look, you’ve got to release these three Americans before the summit.” And apparently, that’s what’s going to happen.

In this case, there is quid pro quo except that Pyongyang is getting a summit with the president, which they’ve always wanted. The North Koreans always want to negotiate tensions with the United States directly — not with China, South Korea, or Japan.

Alex Ward

Is it fair to say the three hostages might be coming home because Trump agreed to give Kim what he wants most: a face-to-face meeting?

Bill Richardson

It’s not a direct trade, but the North Koreans want to ensure the summit with Trump takes place. They don’t want him to back out, and releasing these three Americans sets a positive tone for the summit. It’s a humanitarian gesture on their part.

But the trumped-up charges on these three men are really out of control. They’re not, in my judgment, done in good faith. These were Americans that were either teaching or doing business in North Korea, and they’ve been accused of hostile acts.

The reason they’ve been accused is because the North Koreans see them as a potential bargaining chip to trade in for the future. My hope is that during the summit with the North Koreans, the president makes it clear that the US won’t tolerate the detaining of Americans anymore.

Alex Ward

What’s it like to negotiate with North Koreans on hostage releases?

Bill Richardson

They drag out the process. When you negotiate with them, you don’t do it in a formal negotiating session — you do it informally. The North Koreans will vent and say the Americans prisoners are spies or guilty of hostile acts. But by the end of your visit, you make the deal and they’ll ask for food assistance, for example.

But returning the three Americans is an easy give on their part because they know the prisoners are innocent.

Alex Ward

Is there a serious risk of the three prisoners coming back in dire shape like Otto Warmbier?

Bill Richardson

The treatment of Otto Warmbier was deplorable, and the US wasn’t notified of his condition.

But in this case, they moved the detainees from the prisons and into hotels, which are more comfortable and where food is more available. I hope they’re in good health.

Ahead of the summit, though, the North Koreans don’t want another Warmbier-like situation where these individuals are sick, weak, or malnourished. I suspect they will come out in relatively good shape because there’s too much at risk for the North Koreans.

Alex Ward

What happens immediately after North Korea releases the hostages? How do they get home?

Bill Richardson

Usually, an Air Force plane picks them up or at least a US military officer picks them up. If that’s the case, they’ll fly from Pyongyang to South Korea and then be taken to a US military hospital for a medical checkup.

But now that relations with South Korea are improving, Pyongyang might release the Americans at the Demilitarized Zone so that they just cross the border. Either way, they’ll probably reunite with their families in Seoul.

Alex Ward

If Pyongyang releases the detainees, does that mean they have less negotiating leverage? And does that increase the danger that North Korea will arrest another American in the near future?

Bill Richardson

No, there’s too much at stake with the Trump-Kim summit.

You never know what the North Koreans will do, but I don’t think Pyongyang will continue this practice of detaining Americans.

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