This piece was originally published on Substack.
Hostage-taking has become a feature of diplomacy involving authoritarian governments. Today, President Biden signed an executive order that will allow the United States to sanction people or governments that take Americans hostage, and will set up a warning system for Americans planning a trip. This comes as WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner faces up to 10 years in prison for entering Russia with medical cannabis in her bag—though in all likelihood, it’s retaliation for vast US sanctions against Russian oligarchs and government officials for their war in Ukraine.
Hostage stand-offs were once a rare and last-resort measure for basket case rogue nations, like North Korea and Iran. They were less common for global powers Russia and China, which were more embedded in the global order and stood to suffer economically and diplomatically for breaking the rules of engagement.
Back when I was a journalist covering North Korea, I wrote stories with alarming regularity about foreign tourists being detained for “naughty” schemes by local standards, like leaving a Bible underneath a bathroom bin, or openly talking about missions as a US special forces soldier from the 1950-53 Korean War—chatter that North Korea would consider hostile since it considers itself still at war.
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