Tony Kim. Kim Hak-song. Kim Dong-chul.
Those are the names of three American citizens whom North Korea has been holding as hostages for years — and who may soon be on their way home.
South Korean media reports say the North Korean government has transferred the Americans from brutal labor camps to a hotel near Pyongyang. If true, it’s a strong signal that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may authorize their release before he meets with President Donald Trump later this month or in early June.
On Wednesday night, Trump hinted the US and North Korea may have reached an agreement to release the detainees.
“As everybody is aware, the past Administration has long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North Korean Labor camp, but to no avail,” Trump tweeted.
An unnamed US official told CNN on Thursday the administration is “confident” North Korea will release the detainees. Rudy Giuliani, one of the newest members of Trump’s legal team, said they could be freed as early as Thursday.
The State Department, however, isn’t feeling quite as confident.
“We cannot confirm the validity of these reports,” a spokesperson told me. “The three Americans unlawfully held by North Korea remain very much on the mind of the Trump administration ... and their release would be seen as a sign of goodwill.”
This moment is at least two months in the making. In March, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho traveled to Sweden — which acts as an intermediary for Washington and Pyongyang — to discuss releasing the hostages. And over Easter weekend, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo spoke personally with Kim about the detainees (Pompeo is now the secretary of state).
Experts believe that freeing the three men would be a tangible way for North Korea to try to lower tensions with the US before what would be a historic summit. That’s especially true given the lingering ill will between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea’s treatment of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American who died under mysterious circumstances while being detained by the Kim government.
“Releasing the three Americans is a good sign that North Korea wants a good meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jung Un and, eventually, a peaceful resolution of the nuclear and other issues with North Korea,” says Joseph DeTrani, a former intelligence official who previously negotiated peace talks with North Korea.
That means a possible hostage release could form part of a longer rapprochement between America and North Korea. But make no mistake: Getting US citizens out of North Korean prisons — which one report said were “as terrible [as] Nazi camps” — would be a big win for the men’s families, and for Trump himself.
Who are the US hostages in North Korea?
Here’s what we know about the three US hostages, considering no one has seen them since June 2017. One was snatched during the Obama presidency, while the other two were taken into custody after Trump took office.
Tony Kim, who reportedly is 59 years old, spent a month last year teaching at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. But as he boarded a plane on April 22, 2017, to leave North Korea, authorities arrested him on unknown charges. Kim, who was originally from South Korea but later became a US citizen, lived in North Korea with his wife, who reportedly still lives in the country.
“We miss him. We want to know how he is doing. We want to see him, and ultimately we want to have him home,” Sol Kim, Tony’s son, told the Washington Post in February.
Kim Hak-song also worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. North Korean authorities arrested him in early May, two weeks after snatching Tony Kim, for committing what the North Korean state media described as “hostile acts.” It’s unclear if their detainments are connected in any way.
Kim, originally from China, is an agricultural consultant who came to America in the 1990s and later earned US citizenship. He then moved back to China to study agriculture and, later, moved to Pyongyang.
The longest-imprisoned American in North Korea is Kim Dong-chul, in his mid-60s. North Korean authorities arrested him in October 2015 and later sentenced him 10 years of hard labor for espionage and subversion.
North Korean prisons are notoriously brutal, and it’s not clear what condition the men are in. With luck, the world will soon know, and these hostages will escape the fate of Warmbier, the college student who was detained in North Korea and died soon after being released.
At least one American hostage already died because of North Korea
The Warmbier case is mysterious, and grim.
North Korea imprisoned him in January 2016, and two months later he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for committing an unspecified “hostile act” against North Korea. But after only 17 months in North Korea, the administration secured his release on June 13, 2017 — but he returned home in a coma and died six days later after sustaining brain injuries.
His parents say he was “systematically tortured” to death and late last month sued the North Korean government for its treatment of their son. North Korea denies torturing Warmbier, and a US coroner report last September found no obvious signs of torture.
The administration has stood by the Warmbiers, and used the tragedy of their son’s death to highlight just how cruel the Kim regime is.
Trump invited the Warmbiers to his State of the Union address. The president noted what North Korea did to Otto during the speech while also highlighting the Warmbiers’ grief and resolve. Vice President Mike Pence invited Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Having Warmbier by the vice president’s side during a global event — just 50 miles away from the border with North Korea — was quite the act of defiance by both the administration and the Warmbier family.
Beyond the Warmbier case, the Trump administration seems to have made freeing US hostages held abroad more of a priority, and it has unquestionably had more success than the Obama administration.
The Trump administration worked with Egypt to release Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American aid worker, from captivity in April 2017. And last October, Trump announced the release of Caitlan Coleman, her husband, and the three children that they bore in a captivity that lasted five years.
In 2015 — six years into his presidency — Obama admitted his administration had at times failed families of hostages. “It is true that there have been times where our government, regardless of good intentions, has let them down,” Obama said. “I promised them that we can do better.”
Trump, it seems, is following through on that promise.