3 Americans released from North Korea on way home to U.S.

The release of Korean-Americans Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song had been sought in advance of a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Korean-Americans Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song expected to arrive at 2 a.m. ET Thursday

In this May 3 photo, people watch a TV news report on screen, showing portraits of Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, the Americans who were detained in North Korea. They were released on Wednesday and were flying back to the U.S. with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

Three Americans detained in North Korea for more than a year are on their way back to the U.S. with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Donald Trump announced Wednesday in the latest sign of improving relations between the two longtime adversarial nations.

Trump said on Twitter that Pompeo was "in the air" and with "the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting."

The president, who had been hinting about an imminent release, said he would greet them at Andrews Air Force Base at 2 a.m. ET Thursday.

"I appreciate Kim Jong-un doing this and allowing them to go," Trump said Wednesday before a meeting of his cabinet.

The release of the detainees came as Pompeo visited North Korea on Wednesday to finalize plans for a historic summit between Trump and the North's leader, Kim Jong-un. 

Trump told reporters on Wednesday that the summit would not take place at the inter-Korean demilitarized zone, and that the venue would be announced within the next three days. Singapore has emerged as the most likely place for the meeting late this month or in early June, officials have indicated.

North Korea had accused Kim Dong-chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim, all Korean-Americans, of anti-state activities, but their arrests were widely seen as politically motivated and had compounded the dire state of relations over the isolated nation's nuclear weapons.

They had been held for periods ranging from one to two years. They were the latest in a series of Americans who have been detained by North Korea in recent years for seemingly small offences, and typically freed when senior U.S. officials or statesmen personally visited to bail them out.

The last American to be released before this, college student Otto Warmbier, died in June 2017, days after he was repatriated to the U.S. with severe brain damage.

In this March 16, 2016, file photo, American student Otto Warmbier is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea. He died less than a week after being released and returned to the U.S. more than a year later. (Jon Chol Jin/Associated Press )

Warmbier was arrested by North Korean authorities in January 2016 for stealing a propaganda poster, and sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labour. His parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit, accusing the North Korean government of torturing and killing their son.

Of the newly released detainees, Kim Dong-chul, a 64-year-old South Korean-born U.S. citizen, had been held the longest. The former Virginia resident was sentenced in April 2016 to 10 years in prison with hard labour after being convicted of espionage. He reportedly ran a trade and hotel service company in Rason, a special economic zone on North Korea's border with Russia.

The other two detainees hadn't been tried:

  • Kim Hak-song worked in agricultural development at an experimental farm run by the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). The university is the only privately funded college in North Korea and was founded in 2010 with donations from Christian groups. He was detained last May for alleged anti-state activities.
  • Tony Kim, 59, who also goes by Kim Sang-duk, was detained in April 2017 at the Pyongyang airport. He taught accounting at PUST. He was accused of committing unspecified criminal acts intended to overthrow the government.
Tony Kim is pictured in this 2016 file photo provided by his family. He is one of three American detainees who were released by North Korea on Wednesday. (Tony Kim family/Associated Press)

Tony Kim's family released a statement Wednesday thanking "all of those who have worked toward and contributed to his return home."

"We also want to thank the President for engaging directly with North Korea. Mostly, we thank God for Tony's safe return."

The family asked people to "continue to pray for the people of North Korea and for the release of all who are still being held."

South Korea's presidential Blue House welcomed the news of the release of the three men, saying the move would have a "positive effect" for the upcoming American-North Korean talks. 

Blue House spokesperson Yoon Young-chan also called on Pyongyang to release six more South Korean detainees.

"In order to reinforce reconciliation between South Korea and North Korea and to spread peace on the Korean peninsula, we wish for a swift repatriation of South Korean detainees," Yoon said in a statement.

The White House also released a statement on Wednesday morning. 

"President Trump appreciates leader Kim Jong-un's action to release these American citizens, and views this as a positive gesture of goodwill," it said. 

"The three Americans appear to be in good condition and were all able to walk on the plane without assistance. All Americans look forward to welcoming them home and to seeing them reunited with their loved ones."

On Capitol Hill, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer celebrated the detainees' return but warned that "we'll see many more hostages" if the administration provides an incentive for imprisoning Americans.

"We are happy they've returned, but North Korea shouldn't gain by taking Americans and then releasing them," he said.

Plans for Trump-Kim summit

Pompeo, in his visit, discussed the agenda for the anticipated Trump-Kim summit in a meeting with Kim Yong Chol, vice-chairman of the central committee of North Korea's ruling party.

Later, Pompeo said the senior official had been a great partner in working to make the summit a success.

"For decades, we have been adversaries. Now we are hopeful that we can work together to resolve this conflict," Pompeo said.

He also said "there are many challenges along the way."

Kim Yong Chol noted the improved relations between the Koreas, as well as the North's policy to "concentrate all efforts into economic progress" in the country.

"This is not a result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside," he said, citing the will of the Korean people.

That contradicted Trump, who has said repeatedly that his pressure tactics brought North Korea to the negotiating table.

Pompeo's trip, his second to North Korea this year, had not been publicly disclosed when he flew out of Washington late Monday aboard an Air Force jetliner.

Trump announced the mission Tuesday afternoon as he laid out his case for withdrawing from a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, another bitter U.S. adversary.

Minutes later, Pompeo arrived in Japan to refuel before flying on to Pyongyang. Accompanying him were a handful of senior aides, a security detail and two journalists — one from The Associated Press and one from the Washington Post, both given roughly four hours' notice of his departure.

When the flight arrived Wednesday morning in Pyongyang, North Korean officials were on hand to greet Pompeo. A motorcade took Pompeo and his delegation to the Koryo Hotel, the main hotel for foreigners in Pyongyang.

The trip came just days after North Korea expressed displeasure with Washington for comments suggesting that massive U.S. pressure had pushed Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, is returning to the U.S. with three Americans who had been held in North Korea, under leader Kim Jong-un, centre, according to Donald Trump, right. (Yuri Gripas, KCNA, Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Pompeo, who first travelled to North Korea as CIA chief in early April, is only the second sitting secretary of state to visit the reclusive nation with which the U.S. is still technically at war. The first was Madeleine Albright, who went in 2000 as part of an unsuccessful bid to arrange a meeting between then-President Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong-il.

"Plans are being made, relationships are building, hopefully a deal will happen and with the help of China, South Korea and Japan a future of great prosperity and security can be achieved for everyone," Trump said at the White House as he announced Pompeo's visit on Wednesday.

​A Trump-Kim meeting seemed a remote possibility just a few months ago when the two leaders were trading threats and insults over North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests. But momentum for diplomacy built this year as North and South Korea have moved to ease tensions, including with their own leaders' summit late last month.

In March, Trump unexpectedly accepted an offer of talks from Kim after the North Korean dictator agreed to suspend nuclear and missile tests and discuss "denuclearization." According to South Korea, Kim says he's willing to give up his nukes if the United States commits to a formal end to the Korean War and pledges not to attack the North.

Kim was quoted by China's official news agency Xinhua as saying on Monday, "I hope to build mutual trust with the U.S. through dialogue." He added that a political resolution of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and denuclearization should proceed in stages, with all sides moving in concert.

But his exact demands for relinquishing weapons that his nation spent decades building remain unclear. Previous U.S. efforts to negotiate an end to the North's nuclear weapons program failed under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

Pompeo and officials travelling with him said the Trump administration would not repeat mistakes of the past, which they described as accepting gradual, incremental and long-term disarmament in exchange for immediate benefits.

"We will not relieve sanctions until such time as we have achieved our objectives," Pompeo said. "We're not going to do this in small increments where the world is essentially coerced into relieving economic pressure."

Trump has said that withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea is "not on the table." Some 28,500 U.S. forces are based in the allied nation, a military presence that has been preserved to deter North Korea since the war ended in 1953 without a peace treaty.

After weeks of positive signals, though, North Korea on Sunday dismissed what it called "misleading" claims that Trump's policy of maximum political pressure and sanctions are what drove the North to talks.

A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman warned the claims are a "dangerous attempt" to ruin a budding detente on the Korean Peninsula after the summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

With files from Reuters and CBC News