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Three Americans freed from North Korea ahead of Trump-Kim summit

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By Alastair Jamieson and The Associated Press  with NBC News World News
Image: Otto Frederick Warmbier
Otto Warmbier is taken to a court in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2016.   -   Copyright  Kyodo

Three Americans who had been imprisoned in North Korean labor camps were on their way home Wednesday.

Kim Hak-song, Kim Dong-chul and Kim Sang-duk, who is also known as Tony Kim, had all been held by Kim Jong Un's regime.

President Donald Trump confirmed they had been released in a tweet.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was accompanying them back to the U.S. after visiting Pyongyang to finalize plans for a historic summit between President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader.

Details of their health were not immediately available. However, South Korean media reports last week quoted a local activist as saying the detainees had been relocated from a labor camp to a hotel on the outskirts of Pyongyang.

North Korea last year released Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student who was convicted of "hostile acts" in 2016 after visiting Pyongyang. However, he was so weakened by his time in a labor camp that he died days after returning to Ohio.

Otto Warmbier is taken to a court in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2016.
Otto Warmbier is taken to a court in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2016.Kyodo

Detaining — and then releasing — U.S. citizens has given Pyongyang leverage in negotiations with Washington in the past.

Tony Kim, 59, was detained at Pyongyang Airport in April 2017 as he was preparing to leave the country. The Korean-American accounting professor had been working at the Pyongyang University of Science Technology, an institution privately funded by Christian groups in the West.

His California-based son, Sol Kim, 27, has been lobbying for the humanitarian release of all three men. "We are thankful that the President has chosen to engage directly with North Korea," the family said in a statement earlier Wednesday. "We do think it's time for them to come home."

Kim Hak-song, who was also working at the Pyongyang Science and Technology University, was held in May 2017 for "hostile acts against the republic." The institution said Kim was doing agricultural development work not connected with the university.

"North Koreans face an almost complete denial of fundamental freedoms by their government."

The longest-held detainee is Kim Dong-chul, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor in April 2016 for espionage and subversion. Paraded before cameras ahead of his trial, he said he had spied for South Korean intelligence authorities in a plot to bring down the North's leadership and had tried to spread religion among North Koreans. However, South Korea's National Intelligence Service said his case wasn't related to the organization in any way.

Despite the imminent release of the three American detainees, the U.S. last week slammed the North Korean regime over human rights.

In a statement marking North Korea Freedom Week, an annual event used by South Korean and international activists to raise awareness of abuses by North Korea, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said: "We must not forget the millions of North Koreans who continue to suffer under one of the most repressive and abusive governments in the world."

She added: "For more than 60 years, the people of North Korea have faced egregious human rights violations in virtually every aspect of life. In addition to the roughly 100,000 individuals, including children and family members of the accused, who suffer in political prison camps, North Koreans face an almost complete denial of fundamental freedoms by their government."

Pompeo, who first traveled to North Korea as CIA chief in early April, is only the second sitting secretary of state to visit the reclusive nation. The first was Madeleine Albright, who went in 2000 as part of an unsuccessful bid to arrange a meeting between then-President Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il.

"For decades, we have been adversaries. Now we are hopeful that we can work together to resolve this conflict," Pompeo said in Pyongyang, adding that "there are many challenges along the way."

In a meeting with Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the central committee of North Korea's ruling party, Pompeo discussed the agenda for a potential leaders' summit. The two toasted each other after a dinner of duck and poached fish.

Trump has said that a time and place for the summit have been decided, but has not said where and when it will be. Pompeo's visit to Pyongyang aims to lock down the date and venue for a formal announcement.

In March, Trump unexpectedly accepted an offer of talks from Kim after the North Korean leader agreed to suspend nuclear and missile tests and discuss "denuclearization." Kim made similar pledges during last month's summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

According to South Korea, Kim says he's willing to give up his nukes if the United States commits to a formal end to the Korean War and pledges not to attack the North.