North Korea released three U.S. citizens who had been detained for as long as two years, a goodwill gesture ahead of a planned summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un that’s expected in the coming weeks.

The three prisoners include:

  • Kim Sang Dok, also known as Tony Kim, was intercepted in April 2017 at Pyongyang International Airport after being invited to teach accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
  • Kim Dong Chul was sentenced to 10 years hard labor in 2016 on charges including espionage. He told CNN in January that year that he was a U.S. citizen who spied on behalf of “South Korean conservative elements” before his arrest in North Korea in October. South Korea’s intelligence agency has denied any links to the man.
  • Kim Hak Song was detained in May 2017 for what North Korean state media described as “hostile acts” against the country.

The Korean-American men, who all have the common surname of Kim but are not related, immediately boarded a plane with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was in Pyongyang to meet with Kim Jong Un and other top officials and lay the groundwork for the summit. They were seated with medical personnel on the plane, curtained off from reporters who joined Pompeo on the trip.

Kim Jong Un, North Korea's leader, attends the inter-Korean summit at the Peace House in the village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Paju, South Korea.
Kim Jong Un, North Korea's leader, attends the inter-Korean summit at the Peace House in the village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Paju, South Korea. Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps

“I am pleased to inform you that 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 said in a Twitter posting. “They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set.”

Trump didn’t disclose the date and location of his planned summit with Kim, but the release of the American detainees was heralded as a significant diplomatic signal by Pyongyang. The move allows the two sides to focus on what if any deal can come from the first-ever meeting between a sitting U.S. president and North Korea’s leader.

Pompeo and the detainees will be landing at Andrews Air Force Base at 2:00 A.M. Thursday, Washington time, Trump said. “I will be there to greet them. Very exciting!”

Shortly after the prisoners’ release, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement the three men “appear to be in good condition and were all able to walk on the plane without assistance.” She said Trump “views this as a positive gesture of goodwill.”

The circumstances of the three men’s release was a stark contrast to the fate of American student Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after being returned home in a coma last year. He had been held for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel.

Kim has taken a series of steps this year to ease tensions with the U.S. after he declared North Korea had the capability to target any American city with a nuclear weapon. Trump has welcomed the conciliatory gestures, even while keeping military options on the table should talks collapse.

Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged last month to end their seven-decade war this year and pursue the “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula. The U.S. has said its so-called “maximum pressure campaign” — under which it boosted sanctions and persuaded many countries to sever diplomatic ties with North Korea — was crucial in the North Korean turnaround.

During Pompeo’s 13-hour visit to Pyongyang, however, North Korean officials were quick to counter that notion, telling the top U.S. diplomat that the rapprochement was the result of a plan to focus on economic growth now that the country had obtained nuclear weapons.

“Everything is going well in Pyongyang now,” Kim Yong Chul, director of North Korea’s United Front Department, said in a toast to Pompeo over lunch. “We have perfected our nuclear capability. It is our policy to concentrate all efforts into economic progress in country. This is not the result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside.”

Pompeo, meanwhile, portrayed the day’s events in a positive light, saying the date and time of the summit between Trump and Kim would be announced in the coming days. U.S. and North Korean officials also met to discuss details for the summit, with an American official who joined Pompeo on the trip saying the two sides had made “substantial progress” toward the summit and the two sides are planning another in-person meeting to finalize details.

The release of three Americans is a small price for Kim to pay to secure a meeting with the U.S. president. While the move gives Trump the first real win from his decision to break with decades of diplomatic orthodoxy and grant the summit, it says little about Kim’s willingness to surrender the “treasured sword” of his nuclear weapons program.

Significant challenges remain. North Korea still hasn’t committed to anything it hasn’t promised — and later reneged on — in past negotiations with the U.S. under Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il. There is also the daunting matter of how the U.S. will verify North Korea’s disarmament and whether the secretive, isolated country will satisfy demands for intrusive inspections.

“It definitely reinforces Trump’s credibility and gives him something tangible and quantifiable as a step forward,” said Melissa Hanham, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in Monterrey, California. “The world should take pause before celebrating, because it is one step in a very long and fraught relationship that will unfold over time.”

— With assistance from Kanga Kong and Terrence Dopp

Bloomberg News