Imprisoned Korean-Americans in North Korea factor into pre-summit negotiations

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By Donald Kirk

The fate of three American citizens still imprisoned in North Korea is on the line in a flurry of talks between North Korean and Swedish diplomats in the run-up to next month’s summit between North Korea’s leader KimJong-Un and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In and then the summit in May between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The North-South summit appears as virtually certain to happen, but the North-U.S. summit still depends on several different factors. Among them is North Korea’s willingness to free the three U.S. citizens, two of whom were teaching at the Pohang University of Science and Technology (PUST).

U.S. analysts believe the fate of the three was definitely the focal point of much of the conversation between North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-Ho, and Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom.

Dong Chul Kim, was forced to confess to espionage after his arrest in October 2015. / Kim Kwan Yon / AP

The talking goes on in Finland, where Choe Kang-Il, the North’s deputy director for North American affairs, is meeting retired U.S. diplomats, including Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. ambassador to Seoul. Those talks are called “unofficial,” but they are seen as critical for the immediate future of the confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea.

Right now, the most immediate question being asked by many Koreans is whether those three U.S. citizens, all Korean-Americans, languishing in North Korean prisons have a chance of going home any time soon. All have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

They include Sangduck “Tony” Kim, who was on his way out of the country nearly a year ago after a one-month teaching stint at PUST when he was nabbed at the airport. Next, the North Koreans jailed Haksong Kim, an agrticultural expert said to have been working on a special farm run by PUST, as he too was trying to leave by air.

The longest held of the three, Dong Chul Kim, was forced to confess to espionage after his arrest in October 2015. That was before the arrest of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old University of Virginia student who was arrested at Pyongyang airport for allegedly tearing down a banner in his hotel, forced to make a tearful confession on television and then finally sent to his home in Ohio in a coma last June several days before dying.

Hopes are high in Washington for freedom for the three who are being held while Kim Jong-Un considers what sort of “gift” to offer the Americans. The answer depends in part on annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises that’s due to begin very soon. The war games may be toned down somewhat amid planning for the two summits, but the North Koreans are as usual sure to denounce them as part of a plot to “invade” their country.

U.S. and Korean warplanes will still be conducting simulated bombing missions, and U.S. marines will stage a landing on the beach at the east coast city of Pohang, as they always do during these annual exercises, but commanders are not expected to talk about “decapitation missions” against the North Korean leadership as they have done in recent years. Nor is it certain if U.S. aircraft carriers will lurk for long in the waters off the east and west coasts though it’s difficult to imagine the war games going on without navy and marine aircraft taking off from the decks.

Analysts believe that Kim Jong-Un has accepted the reality that the U.S. and South Korea will conduct the exercises while calling on Moon to cancel them next year. “He’s playing the long game,” said one experienced Washington observer. “He may not get what he wants right now, but he can go for it later.”

American officials were heartened by the responses of South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-Wha, on the CBS program “Face the Nation” during her three-day mission to Washington.

She did not seem at all concerned about President Trump’s hint that maybe the U.S. would consider pulling its troops out of Korea if the South did not make significant concessions in talks on revising KORUS, the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement.

Sure, Trump’s comment “raises eyebrows,” she told CBS’ Margaret Brennan, but she was “absolutely confident” about the U.S. commitment to an alliance that forms the “bedrock of peace and security” in the region.

Yes, said Kang, the Americans and South Koreans were “arguing” a lot about Trump’s plan to impose heavy tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, but she hoped South Korea would be “an exception” to the scheme in view of the South’s vital role as an American ally.

Kang, in meetings at the White House and State Department, sought to convince U.S. officials of Moon’s unshakeable intention to emphasize to Kim the need for the North to follow through on his pledge of denuclearization. She seemed to have made a good impression when she assured them Kim had indicated “in clear terms the commitment to denuclearization.”

Now, say the Americans, they’re waiting to make sure Moon really performs as promised, telling Kim that war games and sanctions will go on until or unless he abandons his nuclear program.

“It will be a miracle if Kim agrees,” said one observer. Freeing the three U.S. citizens, he said, would be a sign of good faith.