The Americans freed from North Korea gave Trump his best chance to tackle his biggest challenge yet, but he'll have to get out of his own way first

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty ImagesUS President Donald Trump (centre L) shakes hands with US detainee Kim Dong-chul (3rd R) upon his return with fellow detainees Kim Hak-song (R) and Tony Kim (front L) after they were freed by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10, 2018.
  • The return of three US prisoners freed from North Korea is a win for President Donald Trump.
  • It is also a “demonstration of the power and effectiveness of diplomacy,” Alexandra Bell, an arms control expert who used to work for the State Department, told Business Insider.
  • Diplomacy is crucial for bridging divides with other countries, and Trump’s affinity for improvisation may have made that more difficult.
  • But Trump will need to rely on diplomacy to achieve his biggest challenge yet: a deal that dismantles North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The safe return of three US citizens from North Korean prisons should remind the White House of the power of diplomacy, say experts.

The arrival of Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song, and Tony Kim into Washington D.C. in the early hours of Thursday morning was a huge win for President Donald Trump. It also marked the first practical outcome of talks between North Korea and the US, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meeting for the second time in Pyongyang on Wednesday.

The positive result – which KCNA, North Korea’s state-run media outlet, said was reached after Kim “accepted an official suggestion of the U.S. president for the release of Americans” – is a reminder of what the Trump administration can accomplish with diplomacy.

“It is a demonstration of the power and effectiveness of diplomacy,” Alexandra Bell, a policy director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, told Business Insider.

As president, Trump has largely eschewed diplomatic advice, instead relying on his instincts and tendency for improvisation, including publicly antagonizing and threatening Kim. It’s believed that a big factor in Rex Tillerson’s firing was the former secretary of state’s adversion to a hardline approach to North Korea, preferring to seek dialogue.

Bell, who used to work for the State Department, hopes that the return of the three Americans will push Trump to recognise the value of diplomacy, and the people within his government that administer it. Because without the dialogue, research, and negotiations that career diplomats would have provided behind the scenes, those three US citizens likely wouldn’t be in Washington now.

“Hopefully this release will convince the White House to further empower American diplomats going forward,” Bell said.

That has not appeared to be the case so far. Trump has yet to fill a number of important ambassador positions and Jospeh Yun, the former point man on US-North Korean relations at the State Department, resigned earlier this year because he felt diplomats and the State Department were “being marginalized.”

“I felt our role was not [as] it should be, and so that’s the reason why I left,” Yun told CNN last week.

But having a robust diplomacy set-up will be crucial for what Trump wants to achieve next: a deal that dismantles the North Korean nuclear program, as well as their chemical and biological programs, and a peace deal for the Korean Peninsula.

There will be “no way” to do this without relying on the experts in the government and at the State Department, believes Bell.

“The White House will need to trust their expertise and judgment.”

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