Trump Secured Release of Detained Americans from North Korea; Biden Faces a More Challenging Task

WASHINGTON — In 2018, Donald Trump joyfully welcomed the release of three detained Americans from North Korea ahead of a planned summit with Kim Jong Un. However, for President Biden, securing the freedom of imprisoned Americans has proven to be a more challenging task.

On Tuesday, Pvt. 2nd Class soldier Travis King defied a tour group and crossed into North Korea, where he was subsequently taken into custody by officials. This incident adds to a series of cases during Biden’s first term in office where Americans have been detained by hostile nations. While the circumstances surrounding King’s arrest are distinct from previous cases involving individuals like women’s basketball player Brittney Griner and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, it once again brings attention to the president’s ability to bring imprisoned citizens home.

Experts note that negotiating King’s release will be a difficult endeavor, given North Korea’s history of rejecting previous offers for unconditional talks from the Biden administration. The country has a track record of using detained individuals as bargaining chips to gain concessions. The situation is further complicated by heightened tensions in the region due to North Korea’s recent ballistic missile launches.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, a Republican congressman from Texas, pointed out that securing the release of detained Americans now often requires challenging negotiations. With limited leverage over countries like Russia, China, and Iran, deals may have to be made in order to secure their return.

Biden’s History with Prisoner Swaps
President Biden has utilized prisoner swaps on multiple occasions in an effort to bring detained Americans back home.

One such exchange involved the handover of convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, which resulted in the release of Brittney Griner. However, the deal drew criticism for Biden’s inability to secure the release of former Marine Paul Whelan, who remains imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges since 2018.

Last week, Biden expressed his willingness to consider a prisoner swap to secure the release of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich from Russia. He stated, “I’m serious about doing all we can to free Americans being illegally held in Russia or anywhere else for that matter.”

During Trump’s presidency, prisoner releases, such as Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song, and Kim Sang Duk, occurred in part because North Korea sought engagement. Additionally, American Bruce Byron Lowrance was released during Trump’s tenure, several months after the first summit aimed at ending North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons program. Talks between the two nations experienced multiple starts and stops, culminating in Trump’s meeting with Kim in the Demilitarized Zone – the same area where Pvt. 2nd Class soldier Travis King ventured into North Korea.

Early in Trump’s presidency, North Korea released American tourist Otto Warmbier after 17 months in custody, but tragically, he was already suffering from brain damage at the time of his release and passed away shortly after.

The recent detention of Pvt. 2nd Class soldier Travis King in North Korea has raised concerns among lawmakers, including Sen. Bill Hagerty, who dealt with North Korea regularly during his time as U.S. ambassador to Japan under Trump. Hagerty expressed shock and concern about King’s well-being, invoking Warmbier’s tragic case and suggesting a grim outlook for the soldier in North Korea.

Currently, relations between the U.S. and North Korea are at a low point, with no formal diplomatic relations between the two countries. Although Biden’s administration has attempted to establish a direct line of communication, North Korea has shown no interest in holding talks.

The situation is further complicated by North Korea’s confrontational stance, intensifying the development of its nuclear and missile programs. The country has demanded that the U.S. halt military exercises in the region and roll back sanctions related to its weapons programs.

Even if the U.S. were to meet North Korea’s demands, experts believe the country would continue advancing its weapons programs, contrary to its previous narrative of being open to dialogue and denuclearization in 2018.

The motive behind King’s decision to cross into North Korea remains unknown, leaving lawmakers perplexed. King, who was facing expulsion from the Army after serving time in a South Korean prison on assault charges, willingly crossed the demarcation line, but the Biden administration has been unable to determine his intentions.

In the midst of uncertainty, lawmakers are grappling with the complexities of the situation and questioning why someone would risk entering North Korea voluntarily. While the U.S. is committed to doing what it can to bring King back safely, the circumstances surrounding his detention present a challenging and delicate diplomatic situation.

McCaul issued a warning, emphasizing that crossing over into North Korea was a grave mistake, and Pvt. 2nd Class soldier Travis King should have known better.

The U.S. State Department strongly advises against traveling to North Korea due to the high risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals in the country.

The White House expressed its commitment to actively working on recovering King, with outreach efforts directed towards Sweden and South Korea to facilitate the process.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre emphasized the primary goal of ascertaining King’s well-being and ensuring his safe return to the United States.

The Pentagon attempted to establish communication with contacts in North Korea’s army, but so far, there has been no response.

The U.S. maintains several sensitive channels to North Korea through discussions with officials from Sweden and South Korea, although specific details were not disclosed.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller refrained from speculating on North Korea’s potential leverage over King’s detention, stating that the Biden administration was still gathering information.

Given the famously adversarial relationship between the U.S. and North Korea, it remains crucial to determine how North Korea plans to handle King’s detention, ensuring due process and avoiding any exploitation, according to Hugh Dugan, who served as acting special presidential envoy for hostage affairs during the Trump administration.