North Korea has released three American prisoners, U.S. officials said Wednesday, ahead of an expected summit between the country’s leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump that will focus on denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song—all Americans of Korean descent—were the only known Americans held in North Korea and had been accused of committing espionage or “hostile acts” against the state.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that the three men had been released and were in U.S. custody to reporters aboard a flight from Pyongyang, where he had spent Wednesday in a previously unannounced meeting with Kim and other North Korean officials, to Yokata Air Base in Japan, saying that the trio were each “in good health.”
“We have the three Americans on the plane … [and] all indications are at this point that their health is as good as could be given that they’ve been held,” he said. “They were happy to be with us on this plane, to be sure.”
Pompeo said he had “a good and lengthy conversation” with Kim in preparation for the upcoming summit with Trump, adding that the two sides had “locked in on the date” and would be announcing when and where it will take place by “the beginning of next week.”
The secretary said that Wednesday’s talks with Kim had covered the proposed agenda for the summit—which is expected later this month or in early June—and that North Korea and the U.S. will coordinate in coming days to “set the conditions for a successful meeting between the two leaders.”
When asked whether the summit would have been possible without the release of the three Americans, Pompeo acknowledged that it “would have been more difficult,” adding, “I’m glad that we don’t have to confront that.”
He said that he believes Kim “is trying to set good conditions for the summit” by releasing the three, but noted that “there’s still a lot of work to do to achieve our ultimate goal.” Wednesday’s visit marked Pompeo’s second trip to North Korea this year.
In a statement issued by the White House, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump “appreciates leader Kim Jong Un’s action to release these American citizens, and views this as a positive gesture of goodwill.”
Vice President Mike Pence said in a statement that while the Trump administration is “encouraged that North Korea freed these innocent hostages, we will not let off the pressure until we achieve full denuclearization.”
President Trump tweeted on Wednesday that Pompeo would be landing with the three Americans at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland at 2:00 a.m. on Thursday, and that he would greet them as they deplaned.
The president had suggested that the three would be released in a tweet last week, in which he incorrectly said former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration had “long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North Korean Labor camp, but to no avail.” Two of the three men were detained after Trump became president.
The release of the three Americans was also welcomed by various U.S. lawmakers, who hailed the act as a positive development in negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Of the three Americans released on Wednesday, Kim Dong-chul had been held the longest, after being sentenced in April 2016 to 10 years in prison with hard labor for “espionage.” Reports suggest Kim Dong-chul ran a trading firm in Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea bordering Russia.
Neither Tony Kim—also known as Kim Sang-duk—nor Kim Hak-song had been tried since their detentions last year in April and May, respectively. Both were associated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the only privately funded college in the North that was founded in 2010 with donations from Christian groups.
Tony Kim had been accused of committing unspecified criminal acts with an aim to topple North Korea’s government, while Kim Hak-song was charged with alleged anti-state activities.
On Wednesday, Tony Kim’s family issued a statement thanking Trump “for engaging directly with N. Korea,” adding that “mostly, we thank God for Tony’s safe return.”
The last American freed by North Korea was 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, a university student who was detained in January 2016 for attempted theft and sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor.
During his incarceration, Warmbier sustained a neurological injury and fell into a coma before being released into U.S. custody last summer. He died days after returning home, escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang that had already been exacerbated by North Korea’s repeated tests of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Former U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues Robert King, speaking before Wednesday’s announcement, told RFA’s Korean Service that using American detainees as bargaining chips is “standard procedure for North Korea.”
“When there are senior American officials that come to [North] Korea, they're willing to give them American detainees and allow them to return to the United States,” said King, who is currently Korea chair for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“I think since this is a very big deal to have a meeting with the president of the United States … it would be quite a surprise if the North Koreans didn’t do this,” he added, speaking as signs emerged that the two countries were resolving the case.
Initially, King said, Kim wanted to demonstrate to the people of North Korea that he was firmly in control of the country after taking power following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
“Dealing with Americans who were detained there was one way of showing his people that he could be tough,” he said.
But strong international sanctions in response to a major nuclear test in September, and several missile tests which suggest the North is capable of targeting the majority of the U.S., have pushed Pyongyang to engage diplomatically, King added.
“If there is going to be any long term progress in a relationship with North Korea … there has to be progress on human rights,” he said.
“Releasing Americans who were detained in North Korea is a first step in that direction.”
Reported by Jung Min Noh for RFA’s Korean Service and by Joshua Lipes. Translated by Sungwon Yang. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.