North Korea this week released three U.S. prisoners being held in a labor camp, a gesture of good will ahead of a diplomatic summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the president announced on Wednesday.
“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 tweeted. “They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set.”
In a follow-up tweet, he added, “Secretary Pompeo and his ‘guests’ will be landing at Andrews Air Force Base at 2:00 A.M. in the morning. I will be there to greet them. Very exciting!”
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
Secretary Pompeo and his “guests” will be landing at Andrews Air Force Base at 2:00 A.M. in the morning. I will be there to greet them. Very exciting!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2018
The three prisoners — Kim Hak-song, Kim Sang Duk (Tony Kim), and Kim Dong Chul — have been held in North Korea since early 2017 and 2015, in the latter man’s case. Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim previously worked for the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), and Kim Dong Chul is a pastor who had previously managed a hotel business in the special economic zone of Rajin-Sonbongm, according to the Washington Post.
Their release has been a sticking point for the Trump administration since it began floating the idea of a diplomatic summit with Kim to discuss denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula earlier this year. Although reports had claimed in recent weeks that the prisoners’ return to the United States was imminent, the White House, concerned with North Korea’s history of using American hostages as political pawns, was nonetheless cautious with its language.
“We’ve been asking for the release of these detainees for 17 months. We’ll talk about it again,” Pompeo said Tuesday while en route to the North Korean capital of Pyonyang. “It’d be a great gesture if [the Kim regime agrees] to do so.”
Pompeo, at the time, added that he had received no assurances from the North Koreans, but were hopeful that leaders would “do the right thing.”
Last Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had added an optimistic, if careful, voice to the chorus, telling reporters that “[their release] would be an incredible step and certainly a sign of goodwill moving into the summit.”
“We again are cautiously optimistic about where this will go,” she said. “As the president has said, we’ll see what happens.”
Sanders was referring to earlier comments by Trump last month, during which the president told reporters his administration was busy “negotiating” with North Korea and that there was “a good chance” the prisoners would return home soon.
“We’re having very good dialogue. We will keep you informed. But we are in there and we are working very hard on that,” he said.
Last week, a member of Trump’s personal legal team, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, made waves after claiming on national television that the prisoners would be released within the day.
“The president of the United States is getting ready to negotiate probably one of our most historic agreements…and we got Kim Jong-un impressed enough to be releasing three prisoners today,” he said on Thursday.
The statement came as a surprise to both the public and the administration. Both the White House and State Department were later forced to clarify that Giuliani, who is not a member of the Trump administration and does not hold the necessary security clearance to discuss foreign policy matters, was not acting as a spokesperson for the president or his team.
“He speaks for himself and not on behalf of the administration on foreign policy,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Tuesday afternoon.
Trump and Kim are expected to meet to discuss the topic of denuclearization in the coming weeks. Although the White House has not released any details about that summit, sources with knowledge of the arrangements say the meeting will likely happen inside the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Experts worry that holding the meeting at the DMZ may appear conciliatory to Kim. South Korean officials, however, have praised the idea, saying the venue is the perfect location for such a historic summit.
“[We] think Panmunjom is quite meaningful as a place to erode the divide and establish a new milestone for peace,” a South Korean spokesperson told reporters in April, according to CNN. “Wouldn’t Panmunjom be the most symbolic place?”