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Two-Minute Take: American Prisoners Released from North Korea

Americans Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song, and Tony Kim have been freed from North Korea after being detained in captivity for years. Human Freedom expert Lindsay Lloyd reflects on the significance of their release.

Article by Lindsay Lloyd May 9, 2018
Korean soldiers check barbed wire fence along the border in Paju, near the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, February 10, 2005. (Jung Je/AFP/Getty Images)

What does the release of these prisoners mean for U.S.-North Korea relations and the upcoming summit? 

While we celebrate these Americans finally coming home, we should remember that they and others have been held without cause in terrible conditions. We can’t forget Otto Warmbier's horrible death at the hands of the North Korean state.

North Korea takes foreigners captive to use as bargaining chips. In the past, Americans have been held until a high-level envoy comes to Pyongyang and pays respects to the regime in exchange for their release. An appalling practice.

It seems clear that this release is happening ahead of the potential summit to take this issue off the table. It would not surprise me to learn that a message was sent that no summit can happen while Americans are held in captivity.                                                                                                     

Does this action signify North Korea is prioritizing human rights?

I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that Kim Jong-un has had a sudden epiphany and decided to improve human rights conditions in North Korea.

This is a political calculation. Kim’s power is predicated on tyranny. North Koreans are not permitted freedom of speech, assembly, or religion. They are not allowed to choose their leaders. They cannot travel freely. North Korea’s government governs with force and brutality.

My hope is that in the excitement over potential talks to reduce North Korea's military threat we don’t lose sight of the more than 20 million people enduring the worst conditions on Earth. Historically, the United States has prioritized human rights, but there are too many cases where they have been shunted aside to address other priorities. In my view, we should never consent to the mistreatment North Koreans endure.