Why you should care
Because Kim Hak Song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong Chul represent a possible turning point in relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
One is a small-business man. Another, an accountant. The third, an agricultural expert. All are American Christians who were held against their will by a cloistered regime, and now will have their names etched in history as a globally televised down payment for a potentially historic rapprochement between the United States and North Korea. As the recently released hostages traveled 40,000 feet in the air, their reintroduction to the free world was made official on Wednesday, naturally, by President Donald Trump’s Twitter account.
I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2018
Kim Hak Song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong Chul made it through unimaginable circumstances that a fourth American detainee — Otto Warmbier, who died in June 2017, days after being released, in a coma, from 17 months of captivity — was unable to overcome. Beyond the basics, not much is known about these men, as they were due to arrive at Joint Base Andrews early Thursday morning. They were likely apprehended as bait to be negotiated at a moment of elevated nuclear-armed tension. Now their humble stories carry immeasurable symbolic value.
These goodwill gestures help soften North Korea in the eyes of the American public.
Jessica Lee, interim executive director of the Council of Korean Americans
The longest-tenured North Korean prisoner was Kim Dong Chul, 64, a naturalized citizen from Fairfax, Virginia, who operated a trading and hotel services company in Rason, a special economic zone near North Korea’s borders with China and Russia. A missionary, Kim Dong Chul was arrested in October 2015. The following April, one month before being sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for espionage, he appeared at a sham news conference in Pyongyang, apologizing for his attempted theft of military secrets for the South Koreans. South Korea has denied any involvement.
Next came Tony Kim, 59, who spent a month teaching finance at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the only private educational institution in North Korea. Tony Kim graduated from the University of California, Riverside with a master’s degree in 1990. He taught accounting at UCR and Aurora University and worked as an accountant in America for more than a decade. On April 22, 2017, he was snatched while boarding a plane with his wife to leave the country. The regime reported that Tony Kim had committed “criminal acts of hostility aimed to overturn” the North Korea government. “I don’t know how being a professor can be hostile to anybody,” his son Sol Kim told NBC News this month. A father of two, Tony Kim is set to arrive home in time for the birth of his first grandchild, due in July.
Two weeks after Tony Kim’s capture, another PUST-affiliated American was apprehended. Kim Hak Song, an agricultural consultant who taught rice growing at the Christian-funded university, was arrested on charges of espionage and subversion. Originally from China, Mr. Kim came to America in the 1990s and eventually gained citizenship. Later, he moved back to China to study agriculture and then moved to Pyongyang. An evangelical pastor, Kim Hak Song was simply trying to help tackle North Korea’s food insecurity, his wife, Kim Mi-ok, told CNN last year: “He went to the country and served with love, and I believe his words that there was nothing else.”
All three men were freed after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met for 90 minutes with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ahead of a planned summit to discuss the country’s nuclear weapons program. The former hostages released a joint statement expressing “our deep appreciation to the United States government, President Trump, Secretary Pompeo and the people of the United States.” Following their release, all three men reportedly boarded the plane without assistance, and Pompeo told traveling reporters that a quick medical exam by a physician revealed that their health “is as good as could be, given what they’ve been through.” Still, they apparently stopped at Yokota Air Base in Japan to board another plane that is better equipped to handle medical needs. “It’s very exciting,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday. “People never thought a thing like this could happen. It can. We have a chance at something really great for the world.”
This outcome is the result of “months of back-channel negotiations between North Korea and the U.S. State Department, both countries’ intelligence agencies and assistance from the Swedish Embassy,” says Alex Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. It demonstrates a promising amount of patience from Trump, she says, and is evidence that Kim Jong Un is serious about engaging in further diplomacy. It also frames how the president should approach the summit: “A belligerent opening stance from President Trump might now be perceived in a negative light.”
That’s because Kim appears to be playing to U.S. public opinion. According to Jessica Lee, interim executive director of the Council of Korean Americans, the release of the three detainees is “an acknowledgment that what the American public thinks about North Korea matters.” According to Lee, “these goodwill gestures help soften North Korea in the eyes of the American public.” A next potential step in that direction: “Reunions of Korean-Americans and their North Korean family members. That would be historic and deeply meaningful.”
Because there are many more still trapped behind Pyongyang’s 21st-century iron curtain.