WASHINGTON (Circa) — "It was a long day," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters aboard a plane en route to Japan from North Korea. "But there were no moments where I felt like we were going to be anything but successful in the day."
Pompeo, took questions late Wednesday evening after securing the release of three American citizens who had been detained by the Kim Jong-Un regime. The new secretary of state was dispatched to North Korea earlier in the day to lay the groundwork for the upcoming summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.
In the span of 13 hours, Pompeo secured plans and a tentative agenda for the summit and brought home Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, who were detained in April and May last year, and Kim Dong-chul, who has been imprisoned since October 2015.
"I’m thrilled that we have them back," Pompeo said. "But there’s still a lot of work to do to achieve our ultimate goal."
The secretary said the summit meeting will likely last a single day but could be extended to two if necessary. "Both sides are confident that we will set the conditions for a successful meeting between the two leaders," he stated.
President Trump initially announced the release of "the 3 wonderful gentlemen" on Twitter and reported a "good meeting" between Secretary Pompeo and Kim Jong-Un. The president said the two sides set a date and location for the summit.
I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2018
e House followed up with a statement saying President Trump views the release of the three Americans "as a positive gesture of goodwill."
The three men are said to be in "good condition" and were attended by a medical team. They are scheduled to arrive at Andrews Air Force Base early Thursday morning where they will be greeted by the president.
Vice President Mike Pence issued a statement to the freed men saying, "Safe travels and welcome home."
In South Korea, President Moon Jae-in, who held a historic peace summit with Kim Jong-Un April 27, applauded the release of the Americans.
"This decision made by North Korea will be a positive factor for the success of the North Korea-United States summit," said President Moon's spokesman Yoon Young-chan. "We welcome North Korea's decision to return the three American captives," he said.
Officials in Seoul expressed hope that this gesture will be followed by the release of South Koreans held captive in the North.
North Korea responded warily, reminding the United States that tensions remain on a knife's edge. North Korean state media warned the U.S. against "making words and acts that may destroy the hard-won atmosphere of dialogue," adding "such behavior may result in endangering the security of its own country."
Far from a war of words, President Trump appeared optimistic about developments with Pyongyang following a cabinet meeting Wednesday afternoon. "People never thought you were going to have a situation where we're having serious and positive communication with North Korea, and we are," he told reporters.
Trump said he believes "both sides want to negotiate a deal." Leaving open the possibility that the talks could fail, he commented, "I think we have a really good shot at making it successful."
Whether it was a gesture of goodwill or meant to extract concessions from the United States in the future, North Korea's release of U.S. detainees served a larger purpose, explained Lisa Collins, a Korea chair fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The North Koreans never do anything for free," she said. "I'm sure they will be expecting something. It's just a matter of what they will ask for and when they will ask for it."
Aside from the broad goal of denuclearization, the administration has not revealed details about talks with North Korean officials. Pompeo said he talked "substantively" with Kim about the summit agenda and coordinating both sides during his most recent visit to Pyongyang.
Ahead of the summit, Kim Jong-Un agreed to "denuclearization," according to members of the Trump administration and South Korean officials. He also committed to stopping nuclear and ballistic missile tests and shut down a nuclear testing site — that was likely already defunct.
According to Pompeo and other members of the administration, the United States has not made any concessions up front. Last week, President Trump did suggest the possible withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula at a later point, but not as part of the initial talks.
Collins said the return of the Americans could be read as a sign the North Koreans are serious about nuclear talks, but was more likely a negotiating tactic.
"I think North Korea will use any type of leverage it has to gain an advantage in the negotiations process leading up to and during the summit," she said.
This would not be the first time the regime has used American detainees to initiate further negotiations, she said. In the past, North Korea used American prisoners to attract high-level current and former U.S. officials to the country in visits often used as domestic propaganda.
In 2009, former President Bill Clinton traveled to the country to bring back two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee.
Former President Jimmy Carter made a "private humanitarian trip" in 2010 and returned from Pyongyang with Aijalon Gomes, a U.S. citizen who was sentenced to eight years of hard labor for illegally crossing the border with China.
Barack Obama's Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, traveled to the country in 2014 and after a "terse" uncomfortable meeting with North Korean officials, secured the release of two Americans, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller.
According to Greg Scarlatoiu executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the prisoner release is not a matter of geopolitical machinations. Rather, he sees it as a sign the Trump administration is taking North Korean human rights violations seriously.
"What I have seen so far is encouraging and makes me quite hopeful that human rights is on the agenda and will stay on the agenda," he said, crediting the Trump administration with the return of the three Americans.
President Trump and First Lady Melania Trump invited North Korean defector and human rights campaigner Ji Seong-ho to the State of the Union address where he received a standing ovation.
In February, Trump brought a group of North Korean escapees to the White House to highlight the regime's human rights abuses.
Vice President Pence met with a group of North Korean defectors on the sidelines of his trip to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The Trump administration also negotiated the release of Otto Warmbier, a native of Ohio and student at the University of Virginia who was arrested in 2016 for removing a propaganda poster from his hotel room and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. In Sept. 2017, he was returned to his family in a vegetative state with signs of severe brain damage. He died days later.
The treatment of Otto Warmbier is only one example of North Korea's "egregious" human rights violations, Scarlatoiu stressed. The regime continues to detain other foreign nationals and commit crimes against its own people.
"Human rights should not be a bargaining chip. It should not be give and take — human rights in exchange for something else," he stated. "Human rights must be on the agenda of any North Korean diplomacy."
The administration has not yet released the date and location of the summit meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-Un, though the president has ruled out the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Trump told reporters he will release further details on the meeting "within three days."
Below is a brief snapshot of the three freed Americans:
Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk was arrested April 22, 2017 as he was trying to board a plane at Pyongyang International Airport and charged with "criminal acts." He was in the country to teach accounting at the Pyongyang University of Science in Technology and was also doing work with an orphanage.
Kim attended the University of California, Riverside and Aurora University, and worked as an accountant in the United States for more than a decade.
Kim's family released a statement thanking the Trump administration and those who worked to secure the release of Kim and the other two Americans. "Mostly, we thank God for Tony's safe return," the family wrote, requesting prayers for the people of North Korea and those who are still detained in the country.
Kim Hak-song was detained May 7, 2017 and accused by North Korean authorities of "hostile acts." Kim was teaching agriculture and at Pyongyang University of Science in Technology to help the country address its food insecurity.
Kim is ethnically Korean and was born in Jilin, China, near the border of North Korea. He lived in the United States for approximately ten years and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2000s.
Kim Don-chul was taken prisoner in October 2016 and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for alleged espionage and theft of military secrets. He was the only U.S. citizen who stood trial.
Kim is a naturalized U.S. citizen who lived in Fairfax, Virginia and once worked in a trading and hotel services company. In a CNN interview in January 2016, he said he was arrested while meeting a source who was providing classified military intelligence.