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North Korea

Donald Trump eyes Singapore for Kim Jong-un summit as North Korea releases three US prisoners 

Trump said the men appeared in good health and would be landing back in the US early Thursday morning

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2018, 11:04am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2018, 12:06pm

Washington has settled on a date and location for a coming summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, details that will be announced “in the next handful of days”, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday.  

Pompeo’s comments to reporters followed his meetings in Pyongyang, which led to the release of three Americans who had been detained there for more than a year. 

The release removed another barrier standing in the way of a Trump-Kim summit, which Trump has said will not be in the Korean peninsula’s demilitarised zone.

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Speaking ahead of a cabinet meeting in Washington, Trump said he “appreciated” Kim’s decision to release the Americans.  

“We had a good day in the sense that I had a good and lengthy conversation with Chairman Kim in preparation for the president’s summit,” Pompeo told reporters travelling with him on the way back from Pyongyang. 

“There were no moments where I felt like we were going to be anything but successful in the day. So no, no glitches, but we were on the – what, 13 hours maybe on the ground, something like that from start to finish?” Pompeo said, according to a transcript released by his department.  

“So a long day for our counterparts, the North Korean team, as well. But worth the time and effort, and I think very productive.”

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The release of the detainees came as Pompeo visited North Korea on Wednesday to finalise plans for a historic summit between Trump and the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Trump said on Twitter that there had been a “good meeting with Kim Jong-un”, adding: “Date & Place set.”

A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Singapore had emerged as the likeliest location for the planned summit. Trump had previously said Singapore was under consideration.

North Korea had accused the three Korean-American prisoners –  Kim Dong-chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim – of anti-state activities but their arrests were widely seen as politically motivated and had compounded the dire state of relations over the isolated nation’s nuclear weapons.

They had been held for periods ranging between one and two years. They were the latest in a series of Americans who have been detained by North Korea in recent years for seemingly small offences and typically freed when senior US officials or statesmen personally visited to bail them out.

Pompeo, in his visit, discussed the agenda for a potential Trump-Kim summit in a meeting with Kim Yong-chol, vice-chairman of the central committee of North Korea’s ruling party.

Later, Pompeo said the senior official had been a great partner in working to make the summit a success.

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

Kim noted the improved relations between the Koreas, as well as the North’s policy to “concentrate all efforts into economic progress” in the country.

“This is not a result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside,” he added, citing the will of the Korean people. That contradicted Trump, who has said repeatedly that his pressure tactics brought North Korea to the negotiating table.

Pompeo’s trip, his second to North Korea this year, had not been publicly disclosed when he flew out of Washington late Monday aboard an Air Force jet. Trump announced the mission Tuesday afternoon as he laid out his case for withdrawing from a landmark nuclear deal with Iran, another bitter US adversary.

Minutes later, Pompeo arrived in Japan to refuel before flying on to Pyongyang. Accompanying him were a handful of senior aides, a security detail and two journalists – one from Associated Press and one from The Washington Post, both given roughly four hours’ notice of his departure.

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When the flight arrived on Wednesday morning in Pyongyang, North Korean officials were on hand to greet Pompeo. A motorcade took Pompeo and his delegation to the Koryo Hotel, the main hotel for foreigners in Pyongyang.

The trip came just days after North Korea expressed displeasure with Washington for comments suggesting that massive US pressure had pushed Kim Jong-un to the negotiating table.

Pompeo, who first travelled to North Korea as CIA chief in early April, is only the second sitting secretary of state to visit the reclusive nation with which the US is still technically at war. 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.

“Plans are being made, relationships are building, hopefully a deal will happen and with the help of China, South Korea and Japan a future of great prosperity and security can be achieved for everyone,” Trump said at the White House as he announced Pompeo’s visit on Wednesday.

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Pompeo’s first trip to Pyongyang, over Easter weekend before he was confirmed as secretary of state, was a closely held secret. News of it did not emerge until just before his Senate confirmation vote less than two weeks ago. Soon after, the White House released photographs of Pompeo and Kim.

Pompeo told reporters that his first visit was to test the North’s seriousness of pledges to South Korea on easing tensions. This trip was “to put in place a framework for a successful summit,” he said.

The Trump-Kim meeting is expected later this month or in early June.

“I think it would be a great gesture if they would agree to do so,” Pompeo said, adding that it would be difficult to hold a leaders’ summit if the prisoners remained captive.

Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang aimed to lock down the date and venue for a formal announcement. It came just a day after Kim returned from China, his second trip to the neighbouring country in six weeks to meet President Xi Jinping.

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A Trump-Kim meeting seemed a remote possibility just a few months ago when the two leaders were trading threats and insults over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests. But momentum for diplomacy built this year as North and South Korea have moved to ease tensions, including with their own leaders’ summit late last month.

In March, Trump unexpectedly accepted an offer of talks from Kim after the North Korean dictator agreed to suspend nuclear and missile tests and discuss “denuclearisation”. According to South Korea, Kim says he is 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.

Kim was quoted by China’s official news agency Xinhua as saying on Monday: “I hope to build mutual trust with the US through dialogue.” He added that a political resolution of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and denuclearisation should proceed in stages, with all sides moving in concert.

But his exact demands for relinquishing weapons that his nation spent decades building remain unclear. Previous US efforts to negotiate an end to the North’s nuclear weapons programme failed under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush.

Pompeo and officials travelling with him said the Trump administration would not repeat mistakes of the past, which they described as accepting gradual, incremental and long-term disarmament in exchange for immediate benefits.

“We will not relieve sanctions until such time as we have achieved our objectives,” Pompeo said. “We’re not going to do this in small increments where the world is essentially coerced into relieving economic pressure.”

Trump has said that withdrawing US forces from South Korea is “not on the table”. Some 28,500 US forces are based in the allied nation, a military presence that has been preserved to deter North Korea since the war ended in 1953 without a peace treaty.

After weeks of positive signals, though, North Korea on Sunday dismissed what it called “misleading” claims that Trump’s policy of maximum political pressure and sanctions are what drove the North to talks. A North Korean foreign ministry spokesman warned the claims are a “dangerous attempt” to ruin a budding detente on the Korean Peninsula after the summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Who are the three detainees?

Kim Dong-chul

Kim, a South Korean-born US citizen, is the longest-serving detainee among the three.

According to North Korea’s state media, Kim, 64, ran a company in the North’s northeastern Rason special economic zone before his arrest on October 2, 2015. He received a 10-year prison term with hard labour in April 2016 for allegedly “perpetrating state subversive plots and espionage against” North Korea.

Before his sentencing, the former Virginia resident publicly apologised for slandering North Korea’s leadership, collecting and passing confidential information to South Korea, and joining a smear campaign against the North’s human rights situation. Other foreigners have been presented at news conferences in North Korea and admitted crimes against the North, but many said after they were released that their confessions were given involuntarily and under duress.

Tony Kim

Tony Kim, who also goes by the Korean name Kim Sang-duk, was detained on April 22, 2017, at the Pyongyang airport for committing “criminal acts of hostility aimed to overturn” North Korea, according to the North’s Korean Central News Agency. It didn’t say what specific criminal acts Kim was alleged to have committed.

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Kim taught accounting at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which has been the only privately funded college in North Korea since its founding in 2010 with donations from Christian groups.

The school said Kim’s detention had nothing to do with his work at the university.

He previously taught Korean at Yanbian University of Science and Technology in Yanji, China, not far from the North Korea border. Kim graduated from the University of California, Riverside, with a master’s degree in business administration in 1990.

He made at least seven trips to North Korea to teach. His wife accompanied him on the visit when he was arrested. She was allowed to leave the country.

Kim Hak-song

Kim worked in agricultural development at an experimental farm run by the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. He was detained on May 6, 2017, for engaging in unspecified “hostile acts” against North Korea, KCNA reported. It didn’t say whether his case was related to Tony Kim’s.

The university also said his detention wasn’t related to his work at the school.

It wasn’t known whether Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song were formally convicted and sentenced.