The release of three US nationals currently detained in North Korea is “imminent,” according to an official with knowledge of the ongoing negotiations.
The official told CNN the North Koreans made the decision to free the Americans two months ago, and that North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho had proposed their release during his visit to Sweden in March.
US officials insisted at the time that their release “must not be related or used to loosen the main issue of denuclearization,” the source said.
The three Americans, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang Duk, also known as Tony Kim, have been detained in North Korea for months.
Donald Trump, who looks set to become the first sitting US President to meet a North Korean leader during a planned summit with Kim Jong Un, said last month his administration was fighting “very diligently to get the three Americans back.”
Trump hinted at a potential development in their case Wednesday night Washington time in a tweet: “As everybody is aware, 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!”
Kim Dong Chul has been in North Korean custody since before Trump was elected, the other two detainees were arrested last spring, after Trump’s inauguration and as tensions between Washington and Pyongyang were beginning to ramp up.
Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, who were arrested in April and May of 2017 respectively, were both accused of carrying out “hostile acts” against the Kim Jong Un regime. Both worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) which bills itself as the only privately run university in the North Korean capital.
The family members of the two educators say their loved ones are innocent. Shortly after he was detained, Kim Hak-song’s wife said in an interview with CNN that her husband is an agricultural expert and was teaching rice-growing at the university, trying to help North Koreans feed themselves.
Tony Kim’s son said his father was teaching accounting at PUST.
Kim Dong Chul was arrested in 2015 for spying on behalf of South Korea, he told CNN in January 2016. The interview was conducted in the presence of North Korean officials, so CNN could not determine whether Kim’s comments were made under duress.
A source at the White House National Security Council said if North Korea were to release the trio, it would be viewed it as a good will gesture ahead of the planned summit with Kim Jong Un.
“Their safety and well-being will factor into future interactions between the United States and North Korean government,” the source said.
Trump said last month his administration was fighting “very diligently to get the three Americans back” and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told ABC News he brought up the detainees during his secret meeting with Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang over Easter weekend.
Only one American has been released from North Korean detention during the Trump’s presidency: Otto Warmbier.
The former University of Virginia student was arrested while on a tour of North Korea and held for 17 months. He returned to the US in a vegetative state and died days later.
North Korean officials said he contracted botulism, but US doctors found no evidence to verify that claim.
Warmbier’s parents have since filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the North Korean government.