Three U.S. citizens detained in North Korea were released Wednesday, ahead of a planned summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.
The Korean-American men, who all have the common surname of Kim but are not related, were set free after being held for as long as two years in the isolated nation, Trump said in a Twitter posting.
“I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting,” Trump said. “They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set.”
I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2018
Trump did not disclose the date and location of the summit planned with Kim.
Pompeo and the detainees will be landing at Andrews Air Force Base at 2:00 A.M. Thursday, Washington time, Trump said. “I will be there to greet them. Very exciting!”
Ahead of the prisoners’ release, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said such a move would be “a sign of goodwill” before the Trump-Kim summit.
Kim has taken a series of steps this year to ease tensions with the U.S. after he declared North Korea had the capability to target any American city with a nuclear weapon. Trump has welcomed the conciliatory gestures, even while keeping the military option on the table if the planned talks collapse.
Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged last month to end their seven-decade war this year and pursue the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. The U.S. is seeking “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” as part of any deal.
The detention of U.S. citizens in North Korea has become a politically charged issue. American student Otto Warmbier, held for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel, died shortly after being returned home in a coma last year. His father, who claims his son was tortured, accompanied Vice President Mike Pence to the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in South Korea in February.
The release of three Americans is a small price for Kim to pay to secure a meeting with the U.S. president. While the move gives Trump the first real win from his decision to break with decades of diplomatic orthodoxy and grant the summit, it says little about Kim’s willingness to surrender the “treasured sword” of his nuclear weapons program.
“It definitely reinforces Trump’s credibility and gives him something tangible and quantifiable as a step forward,” said Melissa Hanham, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in Monterrey, California. “The world should take pause before celebrating, because it is one step in a very long and fraught relationship that will unfold over time.”
The three prisoners include:
Kim Dong Chul was sentenced to 10 years hard labor in 2016 on charges including espionage. He told CNN in January that year that he was a U.S. citizen who spied on behalf of “South Korean conservative elements” before his arrest in North Korea in October. South Korea’s intelligence agency has denied any links to the man. Kim Hak Song was detained in May 2017 under what North Korean state media described as “hostile acts” against the country. Kim Sang Dok, also known as Tony Kim, was intercepted in April 2017 at Pyongyang International Airport after being invited to teach accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.