The administration said three American prisoners walked to a plane without assistance after being freed by dictator Kim Jong-un during a visit from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to set the terms for an upcoming meeting between Kim and President Trump.
The former hostages were scheduled to arrive back at Joint Base Andrews at 2 a.m., according to the White House.
Kim Dong Chul, a businessman and naturalized U.S. citizen who previously lived in Fairfax, Va., was arrested in North Korea’s special economic zone in October 2015 and accused of spying for the South Koreans, which Seoul denied. In a forced confession, Kim said he was guilty of espionage and spreading Christianity. Kim, 64, was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.
Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk, 59, was a professor at China’s Yanbian University of Science and Technology who had been visiting to teach at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the only private college in the country with a sizable foreign staff, for a period of several weeks. Kim had also been a humanitarian aid worker in North Korea and helped deliver critical foreign aid to regions devastated by 2016 floods. He and his wife were arrested in April as they tried to fly out of the country; she was released while he was detained and accused of committing hostile acts.
Kim Hak-Song, 55, was working in agricultural development at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, managing experimental research to address the country’s food shortage. He was arrested last May. Like Kim Dong Chul, Tony Kim and former hostage Kenneth Bae, Kim Hak-Song is a Christian.
A South Korean activist reported a week ago that the trio had been transferred a month prior from a labor camp to a hotel outside Pyongyang for rehabilitation before being repatriated.
“During Secretary Pompeo’s visit, the North Korean leadership released three American detainees,” the White House said in a statement. “President Trump appreciates leader Kim Jong Un’s action to release these American citizens, and views this as a positive gesture of goodwill.”
Pompeo told reporters in Japan today that the three Americans were on a plane, and “they seem to be in good health.”
“The doctors are with them now, but all indications are at this point that their health is as good as could be given that they’ve been held. They all walked up the stairs themselves, with their own power, so good enough to do that. And we’ll have a – hopefully in the next couple of hours a more complete readout of their complete conditions,” he said. “There’s another plane that will meet us there in Japan and they will – there’ll be even more robust medical capabilities on that airplane in the event that they should need it. It doesn’t look like they will, but we’re prepared to do that. So they might stay on this plane and we might shift them to another plane, but in either event they’re coming back to Washington with us.”
Asked if the U.S. would have gone ahead with the summit if North Korea refused to release the prisoners, Pompeo replied, “I don’t know the answer to that. It would have been more difficult, and it certainly would have been a more difficult situation with which we were presented. I’m glad that we don’t have to confront that.”
Asked what the released hostages said after boarding the plane, Pompeo said it was “probably not” appropriate to share that.
“While our administration is encouraged that North Korea freed these innocent hostages, we will not let off the pressure until we achieve full denuclearization,” Vice President Mike Pence said in a statement.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) stressed that “we should all be pleased that three Americans unjustifiably imprisoned by North Korea have been released, and I commend the Secretary of State for his diplomacy that brought it about.”
“Releasing detainees is the easy part; the difficult part will be reaching an agreement with the North Koreans that establishes a strong verification regime that can ensure genuine denuclearization,” Hoyer added. “Congress has yet to see a concrete strategy from the president as to how he intends to avoid giving Mr. Kim a propaganda victory without securing the kind of verifiable commitment on denuclearization necessary for any summit to be a success.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) declared the development “great news for these Americans and their families and I could not be happier that they will soon be back on American soil.”
“Under the previous administration, I was a vocal opponent of their ‘strategic patience’ strategy and advocated for a maximum pressure doctrine to counter North Korea. This maximum pressure strategy began with my North Korea sanctions legislation and the Trump administration has carried out this strategy and has brought North Korea to the negotiating table,” Gardner said.
“We must continue our maximum pressure campaign on Kim Jong-un until we achieve our ultimate goal — complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he added. “I will continue to work with President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo ahead of the president’s summit with North Korea and will do everything I can to guarantee a successful summit.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) stressed on the Senate floor this morning that “this is not some great give on North Korea’s part” and “we cannot forget that no regime has the right to hold Americans citizens in captivity without cause, and under no circumstances should American citizens be viewed as bargaining chips by foreign capitals.”
“I hope that President Trump and Secretary Pompeo are clear about that, because the same goes for the other countries around the world that are wrongly detaining Americans – Iran and China – countries in the world think they can detain Americans, and get something in return? We’ll see many more hostages,” Schumer added.
North Korea faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed last month by the family of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student held hostage by the Kim regime and returned to the United States just days before he passed away from the effects of brutal torture.
The lawsuit states that when Otto was returned to the airport in Cincinnati last year, his parents were “stunned to see his condition.”
“Otto was blind and deaf. He had a shaved head, a feeding tube coming out of his nose, was jerking violently and howling, and was completely unresponsive to any of their efforts to comfort him,” the lawsuit states. “They also noticed that his once straight teeth were now misaligned and had been forced into abnormal positions, particularly in the front of his mouth.”