President Trump on Wednesday hailed the release of three U.S. detainees in North Korea, but in negotiating with Kim Jong Un, the Trump administration may have played into Pyongyang's history of "hostage diplomacy," harshly criticized by National Security Adviser John Bolton when Barack Obama was president.
Bolton has been one of the strongest critics of North Korea’s long history of detaining and imprisoning foreign visitors and then using them as leverage for talks with U.S. leaders.
Bolton admonished Obama in 2009 for engaging in “political ransom” with North Korea after Obama dispatched another former president, Bill Clinton, to negotiate the release of two American journalists. Bolton argued it put humanitarian aid workers, academics and other Americans at risk. It also gave the north "political legitimacy" and emboldened Iran and other autocracies to take similar steps to gain leverage on the United States.
"Despite decades of bipartisan U.S. rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages, it seems that the Obama administration not only chose to negotiate, but to send a former president to do so," Bolton, who worked as ambassador to the United Nations for President George W. Bush, wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post that year.
"The reporters' arrest, show trial and subsequent imprisonment (twelve years hard labor) was hostage taking, essentially an act of state terrorism," Bolton added. "So the Clinton trip is a significant propaganda victory for North Korea, whether or not he carried an official message from President Obama.”
This week, as Trump's national security adviser, Bolton called the release of the three Americans a demonstration of the North Korea’s sincerity.
“It raises questions in terms of his consistency,” said Abraham Denmark, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia in the Obama administration. “If a former president going to North Korea to rescue American citizens is problematic for the national security adviser then, how is it not problematic for a sitting secretary of state to go now and how is it not problematic for a sitting president to go in a few weeks time.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said she was unaware of any issues Bolton may have raised about the current negotiations, but said retrieving the Americans was not the focus of the trip.
"To be clear, the purpose of Secretary Pompeo’s trip was to negotiate and discuss the upcoming meeting between President Trump and the leader of North Korea," Sanders said.
Denmark and others were quick to note that the administration's ability to secure the release of the three men — Kim Hak-Song, also known as Jin Xue Song; Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-Duk; and Kim Dong-Chul — was an important diplomatic breakthrough. Trump hit home that point Wednesday.
"Frankly, nobody thought this was going to happen, and I appreciate Kim Jong Un doing this and allowing them to go," Trump said before meeting with his Cabinet.
The United States has a longstanding policy not to pay ransom or offer "quid pro quos" to obtain the release of hostages or unjustly detained U.S. citizens. But it does have a history of seeking "good will gestures," such as the release of detained Americans, as a condition of pursuing deeper discussions.
Ned Price, a special assistant to Obama on national security, said that Bolton might be able defend his 2009 criticism because it was "one-off emissary’s visit, outside the context of a broader diplomatic opening." But Price noted that Bolton also lambasted Obama for negotiating the release of U.S. detainees in Iran as part of a broader negotiation on that country's nuclear program.
Bolton "has been fairly consistent on North Korea on this point," said Price, "but wildly inconsistent and incoherent” on the Iranian negotiations.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang this week and North Korea on Wednesday released the three Korean-Americans. All were seized between 2015 and 2017, while teaching and doing other work, and were accused of various offenses, including espionage.
Bill Richardson, a former diplomat who has negotiated with North Korea several times, called the prisoner release "a diplomatic victory" and an important prelude for talks between Kim and Trump. But he warned that the North Koreans are using Americans as political pawns, arresting them on trumped-up charges and releasing them as part of an elaborate PR strategy to make them look like humanitarians. .
“Right now, the North Korean leader is a looking like a diplomat, a statesman, meeting with the Chinese, meeting with the South Koreans, releasing the hostages. But in negotiating with them, I learned they always have something up their sleeve,” Richardson said.
Abraham said it's difficult to call the release of the three Americans an act of good will, given that they shouldn't have been arrested in the first place.
“I remember Malcolm X had a saying of if you stab with a nine inch blade, you can’t pull it out six inches and call it progress,” Abraham said. “It’s a similar thing where they did this on purpose. They captured three Americans and now they’re giving them back. Of course, it’s good that they’ve given them back but better to not take them in the first place.”
During its recent talks with North Korea, the Trump administration has varied in its describing the three detainees. Trump referred to them as "hostages,", using the same term as regularly used by Fox New hosts. In briefings with reporters, administration officials have generally referred to the three men as "detained U.S. citizens," but then Vice President Mike Pence added to the mix Wednesday.
"While our administration is encouraged that North Korea freed these innocent hostages, we will not let off the pressure until we achieve full denuclearization," Pence said.
During the Obama administration, officials only referred to "hostages" when commenting on those held by non-state terrorist groups, said Price. Those held by state actor, he said, were called "unjustly detained."
Trump's reelection campaign lauded the men's release Wednesday, a sign that campaign advisers plan to paint the president as a landmark statesman because of his dealings with North Korea.
“Three American families can finally, mercifully rest easy thanks to this diplomatic achievement of President Trump," campaign senior adviser Lara Trump said in a statement.