There have been several American citizens detained in North Korea and one mortally injured during his incarceration. Under what circumstances do countries (such as the USA) use military force to retrieve their citizens?

For example in Operation Entebbe Israel sent commandos when an airplane was hijacked and held hostage. I know rescuing 248 passengers from an airport is easier to plan than rescuing a single person from a prison, but ultimately couldn't the US have "strong armed" North Korea more?

  • 10
    You're comparing a counter-terrorism operation conducted in what basically was a war zone, and conducting a commando operation in a nuclear armed dictatorship with nearly a million troops and several million reservists that is still officially at war with the US. – Denis de Bernardy Mar 26 '19 at 9:12
  • 5
    The likely results would be retaliation, possibly nuclear, against the civilians of South Korea. Restarting the Korean war would get hundreds of thousands of people killed. – pjc50 Mar 26 '19 at 10:07

There are several major differences between the situations.

  • North Korea has nuclear weapons and a more powerful military. They also have more national security relevance to China than Uganda had to the Soviet Union. Attacking them would be militarily much more difficult.
  • The number of US citizens detained is much lower than the number of hostages (hundreds) in the Entebbe operation. This makes the maximum benefit of an operation much lower.
  • The citizens detained, though definitely detained arbitrarily, were arrested by the government of North Korea under its laws, not kidnapped by hijackers. As such, domestic and international support for an operation, even after the fact, could be lower.

For that matter, Operation Entebbe itself provides several reasons for the US to be hesitant about such a measure.

  • Although successful, the operation led directly to the death of an Israeli soldier and three hostages. Obviously, that's risky in terms of internal political opinion. Imagine if the US attempted to rescue some prisoners from North Korea and they all ended up dead, along with some US soldiers.

  • It also led to the deaths of 45 Ugandan soldiers. That can look bad internationally, and it's guaranteed to severely worsen relations with the country in which the operation is conducted. If the US did this in North Korea, North Korea would become much more hostile, potentially jeopardizing negotiations, and the image of the US worldwide might suffer.

  • As retaliation, Idi Amin attempted to kill Kenyans in Uganda. Hundreds were killed; in fact, it's possible that more Kenyans were killed than there were hostages to begin with. The analogous situation with North Korea would likely involve a few random executions of North Koreans suspected (or actually involved) in the operation, and some attacks on South Korea at the very least. If the raid were launched from another country, such as Japan, say, it's possible that that country would face retaliation as well.


In carrying out any military operation, commanders-in-chief balance the potential benefits with potential short- and long-term harm to the country and its population.

In the case of "releasing US citizens from NK prisons" which are presumably secure and well defended. You would need a major military operation to take control of the area. Defend it against the obvious response from the NK army, extract the prisoners and get out. The immediate cost in lives lost would be significant. The NK military is well trained and armed, and would have the benefit of local knowledge and logistics. The long-term effects could include provoking nuclear warfare on the Korean peninsular, and involving Japan and China. The gains would potentially be some Americans get released from prison. While the costs aren't certain, nor are the benefits, as the prisoners may be killed in the release attempt or the Koreans may execute the prisoners when they realise they are under attack.

The diplomatic implications of using force are also mixed. Normalising the use of violence tends to result in more violence being used, and that would include other countries using force against the US.

In this case the cost-benefit analysis isn't too difficult. The costs of mounting such an exercise far outweigh the benefits.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .