SEOUL, South Korea — President Donald Trump scored a diplomatic victory Wednesday as North Korea freed three imprisoned U.S. citizens to return to the United States with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a goodwill gesture from dictator Kim Jong Un ahead of his summit with the president.
Trump announced the men’s release on Twitter early Wednesday, and two reporters traveling with Pompeo later saw the three men boarding the secretary’s plane without assistance as he was set to return to Washington. Trump said he and Vice President Mike Pence would meet the plane at 1 a.m. Iowa time Thursday at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
Talking briefly to reporters before a Cabinet meeting, Trump thanked Kim in language that was unimaginable just months ago when the two exchanged threats of nuclear annihilation.
“I appreciate Kim Jong Un doing this and allowing them to go,” Trump said.
The president also credited the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea for their help in nudging the North Korean leader, and Trump indulged in some self-congratulation as well. Asked whether he thought he personally deserved a Nobel Peace Prize, Trump replied, “Everyone thinks so but I would never say it.”
The administration was eager to win the men’s release to provide good diplomatic news to offset the international opprobrium after Trump on Tuesday withdrew the United States from the 2015 multinational nuclear agreement with Iran. Last week, the president had tweeted that the three men’s freedom was “imminent.”
Despite the gesture from Kim, Trump acknowledged that his meeting with the North Korean leader — the first between a sitting American president and a leader of the long-isolated country — could still be “scuttled.” The United States is demanding that North Korea unilaterally give up its nuclear arsenal and program to develop such weapons, something Kim is widely expected to resist.
Kim’s overture on the prisoners, two of whom were detained last year and one late in President Barack Obama’s tenure, came after he and Pompeo met for 90 minutes in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, to finalize plans for Kim’s meeting with the president.
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Trump told reporters that the two sides had agreed to a place and time. It would not be held in the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea, he said, though more details weren’t disclosed.
The three freed citizens are Kim Dong-chul, a businessman arrested in 2015 and serving 10 years on espionage charges; and Kim Sang-duk and Kim Hak-song, professors associated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology who were arrested last year.
All three men were accused by Pyongyang of subversion and “anti-state” activities. That is a catchall phrase North Korea uses to incarcerate people, often foreigners, for a range of supposed crimes, big and small.
Trump and Pompeo said the men appeared to be in good health. “Doctors are with them now,” Pompeo told the two reporters aboard his plane after takeoff. “All indications are that their health is as good as could be, given what they have been through.”
Their release comes less than a year after the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student detained on theft charges in Pyongyang in 2016. The North released Warmbier in a coma, and he died a week after returning home.