(CBS NEWS) – President Trump tweeted early Wednesday morning that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on his way back from North Korea with 3 American detainees. “They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set,” Mr. Trump added.
Mr. Trump said that Pompeo along with the detainees will be landing at Joint Andrews Air Force Base at 2:00 A.M. “I will be there to greet them. Very exciting!” he added.
The longest-imprisoned of the three, Kim Dong Chul, had been sentenced in April 2016 to 10 years hard labor for espionage. The two others — Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim — were working at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology when they were detained about a year ago.
The family of prisoner Tony Kim said in a statement, “We are very grateful for the release of our husband and father, Tony Kim, and the other two American detainees. We want to thank all of those who have worked toward and contributed to his return home. We also want to thank the President for engaging directly with North Korea. Mostly, we thank God for Tony’s safe return.”
They added, “We appreciate all of the support and prayers of friends and even strangers during this challenging year. You are dear to our hearts. We ask that you continue to pray for the people of North Korea and for the release of all who are still being held.”
Little is known about why the three were detained or what conditions they faced in North Korean custody.
The news comes as Mr. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are making plans for a summit that could happen within weeks. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a historic meeting in the Demilitarized Zone on April 27, agreeing to work toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and discussing plans to declare a formal end to the Korean War.
Signs that the prisoners’ release might be imminent emerged last week amid unconfirmed reports that the detainees had been moved from prisons to a hotel in or near the capital, Pyongyang.
Asked on May 3 about their possible release, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “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.”
Mr. Trump has said his administration was “fighting very diligently” to see the three men released, and he hinted on Twitter that more information might be coming.
“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. Stay Tuned!” he tweeted Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Pompeo said he’d be meeting with senior North Korean leaders but didn’t know if he’d be meeting with Kim. “We’re prepared to meet with anyone who is speaking on behalf of the North Korean government and can give us solid answers so we’re prepared,” he said.
Pompeo said he had planned to raise the issue of the American prisoners but said he did not have any commitments for their release. He said he hoped North Korea would “do the right thing.”
“We have been asking for the release of these detainees for this administration for 17 months,” he told reporters. “We’ll talk about it again today. I think it’d be a great gesture if they would choose to do so.”
Pompeo secretly met with Kim in April while he was still director of the CIA. He was confirmed and sworn in as secretary of state on April 26 and quickly departed on his first foreign trip to Europe and the Middle East.
The release of the three Americans comes 11 months after another American detainee, 22-year-old college student Otto Warmbier, was sent home from North Korea in a coma. Warmbier never recovered consciousness and died a week later.
Warmbier was detained in January 2016 while visiting North Korea at the end of a five-day tour. He was later sentenced to 15 years hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda banner at his hotel.