North Korea releases 3 Americans as Kim Jong Un prepares to meet Trump

Tony Kim was detained at the Pyongyang airport in April 2017 as he was set to depart the country. He subsequently was accused of "hostile acts." Kim had spent a month teaching accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology and most recently had been living in North Korea with his wife, still believed to be there. He supposedly had been volunteering at an orphanage. The university is funded largely by evangelical Christians from the United States and China(Photo: FAMILY OF TONY KIM VIA AP)

North Korea on Wednesday released three American detainees, the communist country’s latest gesture of good will toward the United States in advance of an unprecedented summit between leaders Kim Jong Un and President Trump.

Trump announced their release on Twitter, adding that the date and place for the two leaders’ summit has been set.

The three men —  Kim Hak-Song, also known as Jin Xue Song; Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-Duk; and Kim Dong-Chul — were seized between 2015 and 2017, and accused of a variety of anti-state offenses. All traveled to the isolated nation to help its 25 million citizens. All were sentenced to years in the North’s brutal  camps.

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The detainees release came while Pompeo was meeting with senior leaders in North Korea about the agenda for the upcoming meeting between Trump and Kim.

“We’re hoping to nail some of those down to say – to put in place a framework for a successful summit between the two presidents,” Pompeo told reporters before the meeting.

Who are the three American citizens?

Kim Hak-Song was accused of “hostile acts” in May 2017. He had been doing agricultural development work at the research farm of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology and was living in Pyongyang.

Kim is an ethnic Korean born in China. He studied in California and became a U.S. citizen in the 2000s but never forgot his roots. “He was a very diligent, hardworking man determined to help people in North Korea,” his friend David Kim told CNN.

Tony Kim was detained at the Pyongyang airport in April 2017 as he was set to depart the country. He subsequently was accused of “hostile acts.”

Kim had spent a month teaching accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology and most recently had been living in North Korea with his wife, still believed to be there. He supposedly had been volunteering at an orphanage. The university is funded largely by evangelical Christians from the United States and China.

Kim Dong-Chul of Fairfax, Va., was arrested in October 2015 and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in April 2016 on charges of spying and other offenses.

A month before his trial, he supposedly apologized for trying to steal military secrets for South Koreans. He had been living in Rason, North Korea, in a special economic zone where he ran a trading and hotel services company.

What’s the latest on the Kim-Trump summit?

Trump on Wednesday repeated his claim Friday that a time and place for the historic meeting with Kim has been set, but again did not provide details. The two leaders are expected to discuss the North’s illicit nuclear weapons program, which Trump has said Kim should eliminate.

Pompeo said he would also stress to the North Koreans that the U.S. will not agree to provide economic relief to North Korea, which is under some of the strictest international sanctions in the world, before it achieves that goal.

“We’re not going to relieve sanctions until such time as we achieved our objectives,” Pompeo said. “We are not going to do this in small increments, where the world is essentially coerced into relieving economic pressure. That won’t lead to the outcome that I know Kim Jong-un wants and I know President Trump is demanding.”

Pompeo said he would describe the conditions “that will give them this opportunity to have a historic, big change in the security relationship between North Korea and the United States, which will achieve… complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”

While the president’s goal for the nuclear program is clear, Trump’s goals on other concerns for the U.S. and its allies South Korea and Japan have not been described in depth.

 South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim issued a joint declaration after their summit in April that said the two countries would seek to end the state of war between them and to hold a family reunification event on August 15.

More: Meet the three American prisoners being held by North Korea

More: Trump: No U.S. troop withdrawal from South Korea

Could Japanese citizens be returned from North Korea, too?

But Japan, which has not been party to the recent bilateral talks with the North,  is relying so far on Trump to push for the return of 12 of its citizens that were confirmed to be in North Korea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised the issue with Trump during their summit at Mar-a-Lago in April.

The North allowed five people to return home in 2002, but claimed that others had died or committed suicide.

That number is far smaller than the 883 missing Japanese citizens that the North is suspected of  holding since the 1940s, according to the National Association for the Rescue of Japanese Kidnapped by North Korea, a group based in Tokyo.

Katsunobu Kato, Japan’s minister for the abduction issue, told USA TODAY in Washington Friday that Japan is prepared to deal directly with the North, to normalize relations and provide financial assistance, but that outcome depends on the return of all abductees.

Family members of Megumi Yakota, who was abducted by North Korean agents at age 13 in 1977, are monitoring preparations for the Trump-Kim summit very closely, Kato said.

“Forty years have passed for her family, and her parents have aged.” Kato said. “They consider this a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and their hopes are high.”

Contributing: Marco della Cava

USA TODAY

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