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Three Americans detained in North Korea freed

AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS | This file picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 25, 2016, shows Korean-American Kim Dong-chul as he addressed a news conference in Pyongyang.

Three American detainees have been freed by North Korea and are heading home with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, US President Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday, the latest high-profile release of a US citizen detained by Pyongyang.


"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. They seem to be in good health," Trump tweeted.

Trump said he would be on hand when Pompeo's three "guests" land at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington at 2am (6am GMT) Thursday.

Two of the men, agricultural expert Kim Hak-song and former professor Tony Kim, were arrested in 2017 while Kim Dong-chul, a South Korea-born American businessman and pastor in his 60s (pictured above), was sentenced to 10 years of hard labour in 2016.

"We would like to express our deep appreciation to the United States government, President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and the people of the United States for bringing us home," the three said in a statement released by the State Department as their plane stopped over in Alaska.

"We thank God, and all our families and friends who prayed for us and for our return. God Bless America, the greatest nation in the world."

Goodwill gesture

The White House said all three men were able to walk unassisted onto a US Air Force plane that carried them and the secretary of state out of North Korea. A second plane equipped with more extensive medical supplies awaited them at Yokota Air Force Base just outside Tokyo.

"All indications are their health is as good as could be given they been through," Pompeo said.

The release of the three had been expected as a goodwill gesture amid preparations for a summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim's handover of the Americans was in response to an "official suggestion" from Trump, the North Korean state news agency KCNA said in its account of the talks with Pompeo.

Pompeo arrived in Pyongyang on Tuesday for his second visit since the Trump-Kim meeting was announced. Trump said Pompeo had a "good meeting" with Kim and that a date and place had been finalised for the summit, hotly anticipated to be a historic encounter discussing the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

Kim said the summit would be an "excellent first step" toward an improved situation on the Korean peninsula, according to KCNA.

Washington is demanding that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons programme in exchange for a partial lifting of sanctions.

The family of Tony Kim, one of the three released Americans held by North Korea, said in a statement on Wednesday they were grateful and thanked Trump for engaging directly with Pyongyang.

“We are very grateful for the release of our husband and father, Tony Kim, and the other two American detainees,” the Kim family said.

Bruce Harrison reports from Seoul

High-profile interventions

North Korea has historically used its foreign prisoners as diplomatic leverage, and most Americans from journalists to missionaries held by North Korea have been released only after high-profile interventions.

The release of American student Otto Warmbier last year was secured after Joseph Yun, the State Department's then special representative for North Korea policy, made a secret trip to Pyongyang. It came after a flurry of covert diplomatic contacts between Washington and Pyongyang amid an escalating war of words between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump.

After nearly 18 months in captivity, the 22-year-old arrived home in a coma and died a week later.

US officials were infuriated by his death, and both Warmbier's family and Trump accused North Korea of brutalising him.

Rather than providing a diplomatic opening, Warmbier's release prompted Washington to issue a travel ban to the isolated country and put Pyongyang back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism.

'The US govt has been getting a lot of concessions'

>> American visitors to North Korea: a history

US citizens Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller were released in 2014 after a secret mission to North Korea by James Clapper, then the director of National Intelligence. Clapper spent less than a day in Pyongyang, conducting talks with senior officials, but did not meet Kim Jong Un before flying out with the two freed men. Clapper told CBS that he carried a short letter from Obama identifying him as the presidential envoy but made it clear that his mission was recovering the two US citizens.

In 2010, former US president Jimmy Carter personally obtained the release of Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who had been handed an eight-year hard labour sentence for illegal entry.

Former president Bill Clinton made a trip to Pyongyang in 2009 to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were sentenced to 12 years of hard labour for illegally crossing the border.

>> Video: Bill Clinton’s rescue mission to Pyongyang

Clinton also met with North Korea’s then leader Kim Jong Il and passed on a verbal message from then president Barack Obama.

US officials said Clinton who travelled in an unmarked jet went to North Korea as a private citizen with the authority to negotiate only for the release of the Americans.

In 1996, US Congressman Bill Richardson brought home American Evan Hunziker, who had swum naked and drunk across the Yalu River from China to North Korea, where he was arrested and charged with spying. Richardson went to North Korea as a private citizen but was accompanied by US officials.

The North Koreans initially demanded $100,000 for Hunziker's illegal entry into the country but later agreed to free him after his $5,000 hotel bill was paid.

Less than a month after his return, however, Hunziker committed suicide.


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