Just the Facts

Five Facts on American Hostages

By No Labels
May 10, 2018 | Blog

As one of his first acts after being sworn in last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea this week and returned with three freed U.S. prisoners. President Trump personally greeted Secretary Pompeo and the returning prisoners at Joint Base Andrews early this morning. It was an outcome to celebrate. But was it rare?

Though numbers are hard to come by, American citizens are generally being held hostage somewhere in the world at any given time, whether they are kidnapped, ransomed or falsely imprisoned. Some get a lot of attention, like the U.S. Embassy in Iran almost 40 years ago and the Bowe Bergdahl case in Afghanistan four years ago. Others do not. Whatever the case, neither the American response nor the outcome is ever certain. Here are five facts you should know.


Americans get taken hostage more often than other westerners

A New America study released last year found that 1,185 westerners from 32 countries have been taken hostage by militants, terrorists or pirates since 2001. Almost one in five of those—225 in total—was an American citizen, far more than any other country (Italy was second with 148).


American hostages are killed more often than other westerners

Ninety westerners were killed by their captors between 2001 and 2016, according to the study, and 45 percent of those were American citizens. Indeed, 43 percent of American hostages “died, remain in captivity, or remain unaccounted for” through 2016, the study reported. The average for other western countries was 19 percent.

Hostage crises can last for years

The seizing of the American Embassy in Iran in 1979 is one of the longer—and best known— hostage crisis in history. Fifty-two people, many of them U.S. diplomats, were held for 444 days. During that time, the Carter administration attempted negotiation and a military rescue and both failed. The hostages were released during the Reagan administration in 1981.


Where does North Korea fit in?

In the case of North Korea, three men were imprisoned: one during the Obama administration and two during the Trump administration. All three were jailed for what are believed to be spurious charges and North Korea reportedly showed no interest in negotiating over the prisoners. There was no request by North Korea for special envoys or similar outreach from the U.S., and the last time the prisoners were seen was in June, when a State Department official met with them briefly. But that changed when relations with the U.S. began to thaw and talk of a meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un began in recent weeks. The release was a precondition of the meeting, according to The New York Times.

Pompeo’s successful return with the three men stands in sharp contrast to the fate of a fourth U.S. prisoner, Otto Warmbier, who was released last year. The 22-year-old college student from Ohio was arrested for theft in January of 2016. Warmbier reportedly attempted to take a propaganda poster and was sentenced to 15 years of incarceration. He suffered horrific injuries during his imprisonment, fell into a coma, and was released to the United States in June of last year. He died shortly after his arrival on U.S. soil.


Hostage Situations Are Often Defining Moments of a Presidency

The Iran hostage crisis was a defining aspect of President Carter’s term, and many believe it contributed to his defeat by President Reagan. The Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan administration attempted to free hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon by selling them arms, was a defining moment in his presidency. President Obama came under fire after securing Bergdahl’s release by exchanging five Taliban prisoners held by the U.S. For better or worse, hostage situations, and how they are handled, have become among the most memorable moments for recent U.S. presidents.

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