President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday that three Americans detained in North Korea were released during a meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But who exactly are the men preparing to step back on U.S. soil after being imprisoned by the Kim regime, and why are they so important as Trump gears up for a summit with the North Korean leader?
Kim Dong Chul, 64, was born in South Korea but became a U.S. citizen after moving to Virginia. According to BBC News, he is a pastor and a missionary who used to run a hotel company in Rason, a special economic zone near the northeastern border of North Korea.
He was arrested in October 2015 and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for “perpetrating state subversive plots and espionage against” North Korea, says The Associated Press.
Before his trial, North Korean officials held a press conference in which Kim apologized for sending secrets to South Korea and for slandering the North’s government and human rights record. As with similar “confessions” of this sort, many critics suspect that he made the apology involuntarily.
Kim has said that he has a family in China but has been cut off from all communication with them since his imprisonment.
Tony Kim, who also goes by the South Korean name Kim Sang-duk, is an accountant who graduated from the University of California, Riverside before moving into a teaching position at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) in the North Korean capital.
He made at least seven trips to North Korea to teach accounting, and he also taught in China and was involved in humanitarian work at an orphanage in the North, says the chancellor of PUST.
He was arrested on April 22, 2017, at the Pyongyang airport for committing “criminal acts of hostility aimed to overturn” the North Korean government. His wife was allowed to leave the country, says the AP.
Kim Hak Song also worked at PUST with Tony Kim, but it isn’t known whether their cases are related and the university has said that their arrests were not related to their work for the school.
An ethnic Korean, he was born in China before emigrating to the U.S. He is a missionary involved in agriculture and he worked at an experimental farm run by the university, which was founded by a Korean-American and is funded by U.S. and South Korean Christian charities, reports BBC.
He was arrested on May 6, 2017 for “hostile acts” against the North, but the specifics of his alleged crimes are unknown.
The release of the three men clears a major diplomatic obstacle ahead of a historic summit planned between Trump and Kim Jong Un.
However, the move wasn’t all warm and fuzzies between the two leaders. During Pompeo’s trip to North Korea, regime officials issued a warning with the announcement that Kim had approved the release of the detainees.
“You should make care that they do not make the same mistakes again,” the North Korean official was quoted as saying, according to Reuters. “This was a hard decision.”
But in a statement from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, she expressed the Trump administration’s gratitude to North Korea as the American citizens are welcomed back.
“President Trump appreciates leader Kim Jong Un’s action to release these American citizens, and views this as a positive gesture of goodwill,” Sanders said.
“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,” she added.
The latest release of American prisoners from North Korea differs drastically from the last such instance, in which American student Otto Warmbier was released from captivity in a coma. He died a few days after being brought back to the U.S.
While the decision to allow the detainees to return home is evidence of warming relations between the U.S. and North Korea, it is still unclear whether the Kim regime will be willing to give up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for lasting peace.
Pompeo is expected to land at Andrews Air Force Base with the recently released Americans at 2:00 a.m. on Thursday morning. The president will greet them as they disembark.