Released North Korean hostages Kim Hak-song, Kim Dong-chul and Kim Sang-duk (known as Tony Kim) in file photos. Photos: Reuters, AFP
Released North Korean hostages Kim Hak-song, Kim Dong-chul and Kim Sang-duk (known as Tony Kim) in file photos. Photos: Reuters, AFP

In its latest act of good faith in the run-up to the first-ever leaders’ summit between North Korea and the United States, Pyongyang has released three Americans to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

US President Donald Trump announced the development – which has been widely anticipated – in a tweet late on Wednesday, Asia time.

Pompeo was greeted in Pyongyang by key regime figures Kim Yong-chol and Ri Su-yong, according to The Washington Post, one of whose reporters accompanied the secretary of state.

“Now we are hopeful that we can work together to resolve this conflict, take away threats to the world and make your country have all the opportunities your people so richly deserve,” Pompeo said to his hosts before lunch at the Koryo Hotel in central Pyongyang that is widely patronized by foreign visitors.

“This is not a result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside,” Kim told Pompeo, according to the Post report.

That line suggests the importance of “face” in the North Korean state, and contrasts with Trump’s oft-stated belief that his “maximum pressure” strategy is what pressured Pyongyang into negotiations.

Kim, who formerly headed the powerful state espionage and special-forces apparatus the Reconnaissance General Bureau, has been a key player in inter-Korean contacts this year. Ri is a former foreign minister who handles international affairs. Both are considered savvy members of the Pyongyang uber elite who are trusted by Kim Jong-un.

The Post report did not, however, mention Pompeo’s meeting with Kim Jong-un that Trump referenced.

Pompeo was making his second visit to the North Korean capital. The former CIA head, who made his first visit to North Korea over the Easter weekend, is the first US secretary of state to visit Pyongyang since Madeleine Albright met the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un, there in 2000.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo, now US Secretary of State, meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, North Korea in April of 2018. Photo: US government via Reuters

Meet the new-look Kim Jong-un

Pompeo’s latest trip to Pyongyang was expected to finalize preparations for the Kim-Trump summit, amid widespread speculation that North Korea would release the prisoners as a goodwill gesture.

Since his surprisingly conciliatory New Year’s broadcast on January 1, Kim has announced a moratorium on all nuclear and missile tests, and dispatched athletes and officials to the Winter Olympics, held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He has also come out of isolation to meet both South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping – the latter, twice – and expressed his intention to denuclearize to both.

He has also announced that he will shut down the site where his state has conducted its underground nuclear tests. While some analysts believe the site is geographically unusable due to landfalls, Kim has reportedly said that there are, in fact, still two fully operable tunnels at the site.

Kim met Xi in Dalian, northeast China, on Tuesday, and – assuming that Trump’s tweet is accurate – appears to have flown back to Pyongyang to meet Pompeo.

Although the venue for the North Korea-US summit has not yet been announced, it is expected to take place in Panmunjom, between the Koreas, or in Singapore. Given Trump’s other obligations, the most likely timing looks to be the first half of June.

With upcoming denuclearization negotiations expected to be difficult – North Korea has indicated it wants a phased program, while the United States seeks “complete, verifiable and irreversible” dismantlement, and a tight timetable – Pyongyang may be seeking to build up as much goodwill as possible.

Prisoners released

In the past, Pyongyang has released US detainees to high-ranking US officials, or ex-officials, on mercy missions.

The three detainees released are all Korean-Americans: Kim Dong-chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim. Kim Dong-chul, a pastor, was arrested in 2015 and sentenced to hard labor on a spying charge. The other two were working at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology – an institution founded by overseas Christians – and accused of “hostile acts.”

Trump also tweeted that he would meet Pompeo and his guests when they land in the United States.

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