Trump's Tweet Suggests 3 Americans Held In North Korea Could Be Released Soon

May 3, 2018
Originally published on May 3, 2018 9:37 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Trump is hinting that North Korea will soon release three Americans who have been held in custody there. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders says this would be great news as the president prepares to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: We think that that would be an incredible sign of goodwill and certainly a great statement for the North Koreans to make ahead of the summit and the discussions.

KELLY: Sanders, though, wouldn't confirm the timing of any of this. That's despite the fact that one of the president's lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, told Fox News the three would be released today.

All right, let's bring in NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Michele, who are these Americans, and why are they being held?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: So they are all Korean-Americans accused of hostile acts against the government - so espionage. One is a businessman in his 60s, Kim Dong-chul. He once lived in this area of Fairfax, Va., and was arrested in October 2015. He had been shown on television later, in one of those kind of forced confession-looking videos, saying he was caught trying to steal nuclear secrets and trying to undermine the government. The other two were affiliated with Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. There's a fellow named Kim Hak-song who was arrested last year and a man who goes by the name of Tony Kim. His son, Sol Kim, has been active on social media appealing for his father's release. Let's listen to this from a video he posted recently.

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SOL KIM: My father had just finished his semester as a professor in North Korea when he was arrested at the airport on April 22 last year. No explanation was given. My family and I have had no contact with him since.

KELEMEN: And he says he - as far as he knows, he doesn't - there haven't been any charges against his father.

KELLY: Now, when I said President Trump was hinting that these three are about to be released, we learned about that via a presidential tweet. Michele, how unusual is that as a means for learning about an impending release?

KELEMEN: Well, very. He said, stay tuned. You know, we've known that there's a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy going on this. But in the past, that sort of work stays behind the scenes until the prisoners are safely out of the country. And I should also note, Mary Louise, that President Trump got some of this wrong in his tweet. He said that the previous administration had long sought to have these three released to no avail, but in fact two were just detained last year.

KELLY: Now, I'm thinking of another very high-profile case of an American who was held in North Korea, Otto Warmbier. And it prompts me to ask, do we know what conditions these three are being held in?

KELEMEN: Well, in fact, the State Department official Joseph Yun who went to Pyongyang to bring back Otto Warmbier, who died a few days later, did get a chance to visit these three men when he was in Pyongyang last year. So we know that they've had some contact with U.S. officials. Trump said in his tweet that they've been held in a labor camp. There are unconfirmed reports that they've been moved to a hotel in Pyongyang, but that's still unconfirmed.

KELLY: And very quickly, Michele, any news on the when or the where of a possible summit, Kim-Trump summit?

KELEMEN: Well, we're expecting to hear a time and date soon. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo so far only talking about his expectations that it's going to lead the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons program. And he says he's going into this with eyes wide open.

KELLY: All right, that's NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thanks a lot.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.