U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo departed North Korea on Wednesday with three U.S. citizens the country had been holding in captivity, another sign that relations between the U.S. and North Korea are warming in advance of a first-of-its-kind nuclear summit.
Donald Trump announced the prisoners' release on Twitter, noting that they appeared to be in good health .
Pompeo's trip to Pyongyang was timed with Trump's declaration that the U.S. would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. His meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un follows Kim's second secret trip to China.
Kim Hak-song, Kim Dong-chul, and Kim Sang-duk, who is more commonly referred to as Tony Kim, were due to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base at 2am on Thursday, according to Trump's tweets.
Hak-song, who had been doing research at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, was detained in May 2017 and accused of "hostile acts". Dong-chul, accused of spying, was arrested in 2015 but sentenced to 10 years of hard labour in April 2016. Tony Kim, who had been living in North Korea with his wife, taught for a time at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. He too was accused of "hostile criminal acts" against the regime and was detained in April 2017.
Trump hinted last week that the release could be imminent, tweeting that people should "Stay tuned!" There was no elaboration until Pompeo's departure from Pyongyang on Wednesday.
Trump's unconventional approach to launching a dialogue with the reclusive North Korean regime consisted of wrangling with both the South Koreans and the Chinese to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Pompeo also made a secret trip to North Korea prior to his confirmation, while he was still CIA director.
Trump and Kim plan to meet either this month or next in a location that has yet to be determined. Despite the fanfare surrounding the significance of such a meeting, experts have expressed caution that Kim will commit to meaningful steps toward denuclearisation.
"The fact that we have the opportunity to change direction here and go in a more peaceful one and having it occur so quickly is good news," said John McHugh, an Atlantic Council board director and former secretary of the U.S. army. "But the lesson there is that we could very rapidly, if the upcoming summit is a failure, return to that [earlier] posture, which was an extraordinarily dangerous one."
Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met last week in another historic gathering, jointly committing to ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons. The two leaders also agreed to officially end the Korean War after 65 years.