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State Dept. Calls Report of Talks to Free U.S. Hostages in North Korea 'Purely Speculation'

WASHINGTON -- The State Department today denied a South Korean TV report that negotiators from the U.S. and North Korea were working out a plan to free three U.S. hostages.

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 in May. Like Kim Dong Chul, Tony Kim and former hostage Kenneth Bae, Kim Hak-Song is a Christian.

Seoul-based MBC TV station quoted an unnamed South Korean diplomatic source in a Sunday report as saying Washington and Pyongyang were "hammering out details over the timing of the release" of the prisoners.

Separately, CNN reported that Sweden has been lobbying for the hostages' release on Washington's behalf, including at recent meetings with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho in Stockholm.

State Department press secretary Heather Nauert today called the MBC report "just purely speculation at this point."

"You know that the American citizens who are being held all around the world are - remains one of the top priorities of this administration. When the president first came into office, that was something that he directed the State Department to do, to best oversee the welfare, the care, and bringing home of American citizens who are being held overseas," Nauert told reporters. "We do have Americans there. You all know that, but I don't have anything new for you on that."

The State Department's former top diplomat in charge of North Korea policy, Ambassador Joseph Yun, who recently retired, told CNN last week that he had reached out to the North Koreans and asked them to release the hostages.

"If he did, I have no confirmation of him actually doing that," Nauert said. "I saw part of the report that you're referencing, but I just don't have any confirmation as to whether or not he did that. We certainly hope that our people would be able to come home, though."