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‘Stay tuned!’: Trump and advisers treat fate of North Korea prisoners as a cliffhanger

President Trump stops to talk with reporters on Friday as he departs the White House for Dallas to speak at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting.
President Trump stops to talk with reporters on Friday as he departs the White House for Dallas to speak at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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As he has sought to build anticipation for his high-stakes summit with Kim Jong Un, President Trump has delighted in dropping tantalizing hints about where the meeting will take place — maybe the Korean demilitarized zone! — and what can be achieved — perhaps a peace treaty!

This week, the president, without direct prompting, casually raised another possibility, noting on Twitter that three Americans prisoners have been held in a North Korean labor camp. But, he suggested in a tweet, that could soon change: “Stay tuned!”

Stay tuned. Who knows? We’ll see what happens. The president often uses such phrases to hype dramatic possibilities, even if some of them might not pan out or might fall short of his grand pronouncements.

But in the case of the prisoners, Trump and some key surrogates have again shattered long-standing Washington protocols by speaking so openly about delicate negotiations on American detainees, potentially risking a last-minute setback or coming across as insensitive to the privacy of their families, according to former U.S. diplomatic and intelligence officials.

“I think it is pretty obvious to anyone who has ever spent five minutes negotiating with the North Koreans that you do not announce things that have not happened,” said Christopher Hill, a former State Department official who led the U.S. delegation in the six-party talks with Pyongyang during the George W. Bush administration.

“I understand they take pride in doing things differently,” Hill said of Trump’s team. “But this is serious business — people’s lives are at stake. It just takes a little bit of discipline.”

On Friday, as he departed Washington for a day trip to Dallas, Trump reiterated his cryptic prediction in impromptu remarks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House. He said the administration had worked out a date and location for the Kim meeting — though he declined to reveal them — and added that “a lot of good things have already happened with respect to the hostages.”

“And I think you’re going to see very good things,” Trump said. “As I said yesterday, stay tuned.”

It wasn’t just Trump who was predicting success with the prisoners — two of whom were detained after Trump took office, contrary to his tweet asserting that the Obama administration had failed to win the release of all three.

On Thursday morning, Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has joined Trump’s legal team, said on Fox News, while defending Trump in the controversy surrounding adult film actress Stormy Daniels, that the Americans would be freed by the end of the day.

They were not.

Giuliani later confessed that he did not have inside information and had not even spoken to Trump about it, saying he was basing his prediction on “newspaper accounts.”

“I wasn’t made secretary of state, so I’m not conducting foreign policy,” Giuliani told BuzzFeed News. “We made that comment in the context of, ‘Will you stop interfering with this guy? He’s got other things to do.’ ”

The fate of the three Americans has been an important dynamic in the summit preparations. Trump agreed in March to meet Kim without declaring the release of Tony Kim, Kim Dong-chul and Kim Hak-song a prerequisite for the summit. North Korea has called the men “prisoners of war.”

Critics said Trump — who has railed about North Korea’s brutal treatment of another detainee, American college student Otto Warmbier — missed an opportunity to extract an early concession from the Kim regime. Warmbier died this past summer days after being released in a coma following 17 months in captivity after visiting Pyongyang on a tour. His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, have sued North Korea in federal court, charging that the regime “brutally tortured and murdered” their son.

On Friday, Trump spoke with Warmbier’s family, delivering a warm message and offering emotional support ahead of his summit with Kim, according to sources familiar with the call.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who as CIA director made a secret trip last month to meet Kim in Pyongyang, is said to have raised the issue of the detainees with the North Korean leader, and administration officials have said talks to free them are continuing.

Foreign policy experts said it is likely the North will release them as a goodwill gesture. However, they cautioned that even if Trump has a guarantee of their release, their physical condition remains unknown, and speaking publicly about their fate could make the hostages a more important leverage point for Kim.

“The more public you make it and the more you say something is going to happen that has not happened, it creates leverage for no reason,” said Jung Pak, a former CIA official who now works as an Asia analyst for the Brookings Institution. “It’s not going to get us anything, and it draws criticism that you are politicizing the detainees.”

Joseph Yun, who as the State Department’s former point man on North Korea brought Warm­bier home to Ohio, said Thursday on CNN that administration officials talking about the three Americans publicly could jeopardize efforts to free them.

But speaking at the National Rifle Association conference in Dallas on Friday, Trump accused the Obama administration of having a general “policy of silence” when it came to North Korea.

“Everybody said, ‘Ohh, don’t talk, please don’t talk,’ ” Trump said. “ ‘Don’t talk! You may make them and him angry! Don’t talk! If a horrible statement is made about the United States, don’t say anything. No comment.’ ”

He added dismissively: “Please, please, oh my God.”

In the weeks after Trump agreed to meet Kim, newspapers in Seoul were rife with unsourced reports that the three Americans would be released. The chatter picked up again Wednesday when the Financial Times quoted several South Korean advocates for hostages in the North that the Americans had been moved from labor camps to reeducation facilities in Pyongyang as preparation for their handover to the United States.

U.S. officials said they had no confirmation from Kim’s regime. But the reports ricocheted around social media and were cheered by conservative news sites and Trump supporters as a win for the president.

“BREAKING: North Korea has released all U.S. detainees at the request of President Trump,” Ryan Fournier, chairman of Students for Trump, wrote on Twitter to his 430,000 followers. The tweet, which as of Friday afternoon had garnered more than 37,000 retweets and 108,000 “likes,” contained no sourcing.

“When we talk about North Korea, in general, we tend to forget we’re talking about people, and these abductees have families who have been anxiously awaiting their return and are only relying on governments to do that,” said Pak, the former intelligence official. “It would be best to be circumspect in discussions like this. We’re talking about real lives.”