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Who Are the 3 American Hostages? Trump Announces Release After North Korea Agrees to Hand Over Custody

On Wednesday, North Korea released three American citizens who had been held in one of the country’s notorious labor camps.

The State Department, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, delivered a statement confirming that the three hostages had boarded a flight home.

“During Secretary Pompeo’s visit, the North Korean leadership released three American detainees. President [Donald] Trump appreciates leader Kim Jong Un’s action to release these American citizens, and views this as a positive gesture of goodwill,” the State Department said in a statement. “The three Americans appear to be in good condition and were all able to walk on the plane without assistance. All Americans look forward to welcoming them home and to seeing them reunited with their loved ones.”

Pompeo-Kim South Koreans watch on a screen reporting the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to North Korea at the Seoul Railway Station, in Seoul, South Korea, on May 9. Imprisoned American citizens Tony Kim, Kim Hak-song and Kim Dong-chul will return to the U.S. alongside Pompeo, according to Trump’s tweet. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Late Tuesday night, Trump tweeted: "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. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set." 

The three hostages released are Kim Dong-chul, Kim Sang-duk and Kim Hak-song, who were arrested in North Korea and sentenced to around a decade each of hard labor.  

Kim Dong-chul was arrested in 2015 in North Korea, two years before the other hostages, on spying charges. He had confessed to attempting to smuggle military secrets out of North Korea on a USB stick, but it’s unclear if the confession was forced.

Kim Sang-duk, who is also known as Tony Kim, has been described as a religious man in his 50s who went to North Korea to discuss relief and humanitarian aid work. He had previously been teaching at a university in China, and had also spent several months with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) before his arrest. He was detained in April last year by the North Korean government, which accused him of attempting to overthrow the government.

Kim Hak-song is an expert in agriculture who had been teaching rice-growing at the PUST in order to help the country overcome its chronic food shortages. He had also been ordained as an evangelical Christian pastor.

All three men are ethnic Koreans who became naturalized U.S. citizens.

Pompeo had traveled to North Korea on Wednesday to prepare the groundwork for an upcoming meeting between Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un.  

Some experts said that the hostage release, a gesture of goodwill from the repressive Kim regime, suggests that North Korea is serious about the upcoming summit. But it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be a major breakthrough on tough issues like the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

“What we are witnessing, with North Korea releasing three American hostages, is truly historic, and points to the very real possibility of a game-changing summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un,” Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C., told Newsweek.

“The chances of Kim giving up his nuclear weapons are still slim to none. Or, what Kim may want to give up those nuclear weapons could be a price we could never meet—like hundreds of billions of dollars and the complete removal of U.S. military forces [from South Korea],” Kazianis added. 

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