WASHINGTON: North Korea has freed three American detainees, President Donald Trump announced Wednesday, hailing a diplomatic victory ahead of a planned summit with Kim Jong-un.
Pyongyang granted the three men “amnesty”, a US official said, and they are now on their way back to the United States with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Two of the men, agricultural expert Kim Hak-song and former professor Tony Kim were arrested in 2017, while Kim Dong-chul, a South Korea-born American businessman and pastor in his 60s, was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour in 2016.
“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,” Trump tweeted.
The White House said all three men were able to walk unassisted onto a US Air Force plane that carried them and the secretary of state out of North Korea.
A second plane, with more robust medical equipment, waited for them at Yokota Air Force Base, just outside Tokyo.
“All indications are their health is as good as could be given they been through,” said Pompeo.
The family of Tony Kim voiced their gratitude to “all of those who have worked toward and contributed to his return home” — and specifically thanking Trump for “engaging directly with North Korea.”
“Mostly, we thank God for Tony’s safe return,” the family said in a statement. “We ask that you continue to pray for the people of North Korea and for the release of all who are still being held.”
Trump meanwhile described the release as “a gesture of good will” and said he would be on hand when Pompeo’s three “guests” land at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington at 2:00am (0600 GMT) Thursday.
Trump acolytes declared the release an unbridled political victory, evidence, Vice President Mike Pence said, that “strong leadership and our America First policies are paying dividends.”
The men’s release appears to pave the way for a much-anticipated summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim, scheduled to take place within weeks.
Summit details to follow
Trump says a time, date and location have been decided for that historic summit, although US officials say there are still some details to be worked out.
Pompeo told reporters the administration would “in the next handful of days be able to announce date and time.”
Possible locations include Singapore and the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea.
The meeting will discuss North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic weapons program, which may soon give Pyongyang the capability of striking the continental United States.
Trump has demanded that North Korea give up its nukes, while Kim has offered few indications about what he is willing to concede or what he will demand in return.
North Korea has often insisted that the United States withdraw support for South Korea, where 30,000-plus US military personnel are stationed.
Since coming to office Trump has embarked on a campaign of “maximum pressure” on the North Korean regime.
A series of provocative North Korean missile tests have been met with US sanctions and a tougher Chinese stance on cross border trade.
Officials in Washington believe the punitive economic measures have prompted fuel shortages in North Korea and increased tension inside the regime.
North Korea official Kim Yong Chul, who met Pompeo in Pyongyang, insisted the country’s openness to talks was “not the result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside,” but a change in regime focus.
“We have perfected our nuclear capability. It is our policy to concentrate all efforts into economic progress in country,” he said.