An Overlooked Victory

While the world’s attention was riveted on the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, another dramatic story transpired that deserves much more coverage than it has been getting.

On Wednesday, three Americans who were detained in North Korea for more than a year were on their way back to the United States with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The new secretary was apparently instrumental in securing their release. He was in North Korea on Wednesday to make final plans for the summit meeting between President Donald Trump and the North’s leader Kim Jong Un. Mr. Trump said on Twitter that there had been a “good meeting with Kim Jong Un,” adding: “Date & Place set.”

But no less important than the details of this historic meeting was winning the freedom of three American citizens.

North Korea had accused Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim, all Korean-Americans, of activities aimed at harming the North Korean state. However, the three were thought to be innocent, the detentions politically motivated.

They were just the latest in a series of such travesties perpetrated by Pyongyang in recent years involving Americans who were arrested on trivial or false charges and then released when senior U.S. officials personally visited to arrange matters.

Evidently, in the course of negotiations with the North Korean officials, Pompeo made it clear that the continued imprisonment of these U.S. citizens was an obstacle to a Trump-Kim summit, and he pressed them to let them go as a gesture of good will and sincere desire to move the peace process forward.

“I think it would be a great gesture if they would agree to do so,” Pompeo had said, adding that it would be difficult to hold a leaders’ summit if these men remained captive, and, as both sides knew, wrongfully so.

Indeed. The North Koreans did not release the captives out of the goodness of their hearts. They did not repent of their tyrannical behavior. Rather, they agreed to Pompeo’s request because they want the summit and understand that it is worth their while to release the captives.

It was a diplomatic victory for the Trump administration, an example of tough negotiating that yielded substantial results.

The issue of international prestige is often belittled, but it does seem that when the United States stands up for its citizens abroad it pays dividends. Foreign leaders come to understand that they cannot snatch Americans with impunity, and that if they seek something from the United States they must act with respect and humanity.

In this case, it is not only three Americans who have benefited from Pompeo’s skillful diplomacy, but millions of people who live on the Korean Peninsula who are undoubtedly desirous that the process of reconciliation and denuclearization moves forward without undue delay.

It is also noteworthy that the negotiations for the three captives was carried on quietly. American officials, including Pompeo, barely mentioned it. The release of the three captives has also not been attended by much fanfare.

This was due in part to the dominance of the Iran nuclear story and other stories that have held the media captive in recent days. But also it appears that the Trump administration understands that it would be counterproductive to embarrass the North Koreans by publicizing this particular drama and its outcome.

What truly matters is that North Korea agreed to release the detainees, thus removing an obstacle to the summit meeting. It was sufficient to say that it had been a “good meeting.”

“For decades, we have been adversaries. Now we are hopeful that we can work together to resolve this conflict,” Pompeo said, adding that “there are many challenges along the way.”

President Trump, too, was hopeful: “Plans are being made, relationships are building, hopefully a deal will happen and with the help of China, South Korea and Japan a future of great prosperity and security can be achieved for everyone,” he said at the White House as he announced Mr. Pompeo’s visit on Wednesday.

A week ago, critics were pointing out that amid all the hoopla of reconciliation, North Korea had not actually given up anything yet. There was a promise of denuclearization that lacked specifics, and symbolic gestures like removing propaganda loudspeakers at the demilitarized zone, which cost neither side anything.

Now something of value has been given up: Three human beings are free. And the process of bringing peace to North and South Korea can move on to the next step.