WASHINGTON • North Korea released three American detainees and handed them over to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday, clearing a major obstacle to an unprecedented summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader 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.
Two of the men, agricultural expert Kim Hak Song and former professor Tony Kim, were arrested last year, while South Korea-born American businessman and pastor Kim Dong Chul, who is in his 60s, was sentenced to 10 years' hard labour in 2016.
Mr Trump said the Korean-Americans, who were freed after Mr Pompeo met Mr Kim Jong Un, were flying home on the chief US diplomat's plane. The President planned to greet them when they land at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington today at 2am local time (2pm Singapore time).
The release appeared to signal an effort by Mr Kim to set a more positive tone for the summit and followed his recent pledge to suspend missile tests and shut Pyongyang's nuclear bomb test site.
While Mr Kim is giving up the last of his remaining American prisoners, whom his country has often used in the past as bargaining chips with the US, the move could also be aimed at pressuring Mr Trump to make concessions of his own in his bid to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal.
Mr Trump posted on Twitter: "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 three wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health."
The family of Mr Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang Duk, thanked Mr Trump, saying in a statement: "We are very grateful for the release of our husband and father, Tony Kim, and the other two American detainees."
Mr Tony Kim had spent a month teaching at the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology before he was arrested last year.
South Korea heralded the North's move as positive for upcoming talks between Mr Trump and Mr Kim, and called on Pyongyang to also release six South Korean detainees.
The fate of the three detainees had been among a number of delicate issues in the run-up to the first-ever meeting of US and North Korean leaders.
As Mr Pompeo returned to his Pyongyang hotel from a 90-minute meeting with Mr Kim, the Secretary of State crossed his fingers when asked by reporters if there was good news about the prisoners.
A North Korean official came to the hotel shortly afterwards to inform Mr Pompeo that Mr Kim had granted their release, according to a senior US official present for the exchange. "That's great," Mr Pompeo replied.
The North Korean official was quoted as saying: "You should take care that they do not make the same mistakes again... This was a hard decision."
North Korean state media said the three newly released prisoners were detained either for subversion or committing "hostile acts" against the government.
The three detainees were on the plane less than an hour after leaving custody. The White House said the health of the three appears to be good and all were able to walk without assistance.
Mr Trump viewed the release of the three Americans as a "positive gesture of goodwill" ahead of the planned summit, the White House said. It is planned for late this month or early June.
Until now, the only American released by North Korea during Mr Trump's presidency had been university student Otto Warmbier, 22, who returned to the US in a coma last year after 17 months of captivity. He died days later.
Mr Warmbier's death escalated US-North Korea tensions.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE