U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on his way back to the United States from Pyongyang – and according to President Donald Trump, he is bringing with him three Americans who had been imprisoned in North Korea.
“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 early on May 9. He added that the men “seem to be in good health.” In a later tweet, Trump said that Pompeo and “his ‘guests’” would be touching down at 2 am local time, and that he would be there in person when they landed.
The three men being held in North Korea were all Korean-Americans. The first to be arrested, Kim Dong-chul, was detained in October 2015 on charges of espionage. Kim had moved to Yanji, China, near the North Korean border in 2001 and conducted business in the North Korean special economic zone of Rason. In an interview with CNN, arranged by the North Korean government, he admitted to seeking out military secrets, but many assume his confession was forced. Kim had been sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in April 2016.
The other two men, Tony Kim (also known as Kim Sang-duk) and Kim Hak-song (no relation to each other, Kim Dong-chul, or North Korea’s ruling family) were arrested in quick succession in April and May of 2017. Tony Kim had been teaching finance and business at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). He was detained at the Pyongyang airport on April 22 of last year, accused of attempting to overthrow North Korea’s government.
In a statement on Facebook, his family said they were “very grateful for the release of our husband and father, Tony Kim, and the other two American detainees.”
Kim Hak-song, who was arrested on May 7, 2017, had also been teaching at PUST. According to friends and relatives who spoke to CNN, Kim, an agricultural expert, had been trying to improve North Korea’s agricultural practices and food security.
A fourth American who had been in North Korean custody, Otto Warmbier, was evacuated from North Korea in a coma in June 2017. The 22-year-old died shortly thereafter, sparking outrage from American officials and inspiring travel restrictions on U.S. citizens planning to visit North Korea.
On May 8, Trump had teased that Pompeo might return with the remaining three prisoners, saying “we’ll soon be finding out” in response to a reporter’s question about whether the men would be freed. Pompeo himself was more circumspect in remarks to the press just before he left Japan for North Korea. When asked if the prisoners would be released, Pompeo replied: “We have been asking for the release of these detainees for – this administration for 17 months. We’ll talk about it again today. I think it’d be a great gesture if they would choose to do so.”
In same the tweet as his announcement about the prisoners, Trump also mentioned that Pompeo has a “good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set,” presumably referring to the date and location of a planned summit between Trump himself and Kim.