WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump has hinted that there will be imminent news about three Americans detained in North Korea, after sources said they had been relocated ahead of their possible release.
The development comes as Mr Trump is preparing for a historic summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, following months of tense sabre-rattling over the North's nuclear and missile programmes.
"The past Administration has long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North Korean Labor camp, but to no avail. Stay tuned!" Mr Trump wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. Two of the three hostages were detained last year, after Mr Trump assumed office.
The United States has been demanding that the North free Mr Kim Hak Song, Mr Kim Sang Duk and Mr Kim Dong Chul, and reports have said the two sides were close to reaching a deal on their release.
"They are staying in a hotel on the outskirts of Pyongyang," South Korean activist Choi Sung Ryong, who has contacts in the North, said earlier, adding that the three were being kept separately but "going on tours, receiving medical treatment and eating good food".
Diplomatic sources in Pyongyang have said there were rumours that the three had been relocated, but there had been no confirmation of their exact whereabouts.
The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State. We are working to see US citizens who are detained in North Korea come home as soon as possible.
A US STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN
"We cannot confirm the validity of these reports," a US State Department spokesman said, but added that "the welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State. We are working to see US citizens who are detained in North Korea come home as soon as possible".
The matter was discussed when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to Pyongyang last month, according to The Wall Street Journal. And speaking to Fox News on Sunday, National Security Adviser John Bolton said releasing the hostages would be "an opportunity" for the North to "demonstrate their authenticity".
The three detainees
KIM HAK SONG
Mr Kim Hak Song had been working for the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) undertaking agricultural development work with the school's farm.
He was arrested at Pyongyang railway station in May last year on suspicion of committing "hostile acts" against the government, as he was boarding a train headed for his home in Dandong, China.
Mr Kim, who is in his mid-50s, was born in Jilin, China, and educated at a university in California, CNN reported, citing a man who had studied with him. He said Mr Kim returned to China after about 10 years of living in the United States.
KIM SANG DUK
Mr Kim Sang Duk, or Mr Tony Kim, was arrested in April last year at the capital's main airport as he tried to leave the country after teaching for several weeks, also at PUST.
Mr Kim is a former professor at Yanbian University of Science and Technology in China, close to the Korean border. Its website lists his speciality as accounting.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency has reported that Mr Kim is in his late 50s, and said he had been involved in relief activities for children in rural parts of North Korea.
KIM DONG CHUL
Mr Kim Dong Chul, a South Korean-born American businessman in his 60s, was sentenced to 10 years' hard labour after being arrested on charges of subversion and espionage in April 2016.
He was arrested in October 2015, after he reportedly received a USB stick containing nuclear-linked data and other military information from a former North Korean soldier.
In an interview with CNN in January 2016, Mr Kim said he was a naturalised American living in Fairfax, Virginia. He said he once ran a trading and hotel services company in Rason, a special economic zone near the North's border with China and Russia. A month before his trial, he had also appeared at a government-arranged news conference and apologised for attempting to steal military secrets in collusion with South Korea. The South Korean spy agency has denied involvement.
Despite years of hostility between Washington and Pyongyang, hundreds of Americans visited the reclusive nuclear-armed state every year until the US State Department finally issued a travel ban on North Korea last September.
The North has a history of detaining Americans and using them as bargaining chips, with many released only following a visit by senior US officials. Americans made the high-risk journey to North Korea for various reasons, from holidays and business trips to humanitarian and missionary work.
Six South Koreans have also been detained since 2013, with Seoul also pushing for their release.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS