Trump hints at release of Americans detained in North Korean labor camps

President Donald Trump hinted late Wednesday that three Americans detained in North Korea could soon be released as he prepares for a potential summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

“As everybody is aware," Trump tweeted, "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!"

Trump's prospective meeting with Kim comes after last week's historic summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Trump’s new national security adviser, John Bolton, earlier said that releasing the Americans — Kim Hak-song, Kim Dong-chul and Kim Sang-duk, who also goes by Tony Kim — would be a “demonstration of their sincerity" in the lead-up to the summit.

Relatives of one of the men said they are “hopeful” amid the unconfirmed reports that they could soon be released.

South Korean media reports quoted a local activist as saying North Korea had relocated the trio from a labor camp to a hotel on the outskirts of Pyongyang.

“We cannot confirm the validity of these reports,” a State Department official said.

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, tweeted early Thursday to thank family well-wishers, adding: “We are hopeful but we have no indication that they have been released. We look forward to all of the families being reunited very soon.”

The other detainees are Kim Hak Song, who was also working at the Pyongyang Science and Technology University and was held in May 2017 for "hostile acts against the republic," and Kim Dong Chul, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor in April 2016 for espionage and subversion.

Reports of their possible release come after the U.S. 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.

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Otto Warmbier: A timeline of the student's North Korea imprisonment
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Otto Warmbier: A timeline of the student's North Korea imprisonment

January 2016: Warmbier is imprisoned in North Korea, charged with stealing an item that had a state propaganda slogan on it.

March 2016: Warmbier is sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea

March 2016 - 2017: The United States advocates for North Korea's allowing Sweden access to Warmbier and three other American citizens, pushing for their release.

January 2017: President Trump is inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, signaling a seat change in American foreign diplomacy.

February 2017: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefs President Trump on the situation surrounding Warmbier's imprisonment in North Korea.Trump directs Tillerson to take all appropriate measures in securing the release of U.S. hostages in North Korea.

May 2017:  The U.S. State Department and North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs hold a meeting in Oslo, Norway, during which they agree to the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang's access to all four detainees. Sweden is later granted these visitation rights, prompting North Korea to request a meeting with the United States.

June 6, 2017 - State Department Special Representative Joseph Yun meets with North Korean ambassador Pak Gil Yon at the United Nations in New York. Yun learns during this meeting that Warmbier has been in a coma for over a year.

June 6-11, 2017: Secretary of State Tillerson instructs Yun to travel to North Korea with the mission of bringing back Warmbier. They travel with a medical team to Pyongyang.

June 12, 2017: Through Yun, the United States is able for the first time to confirm Warmbier's status. The U.S. demands Warmbier be released on humanitarian conditions. North Korea complies.

June 13, 2017: Warmbier is evacuated from North Korea, travels to Ohio where he will reunite with his family.

June 13, 2017: Otto Warmbier arrives home to Cincinnati, Ohio
June 15, 2017: Otto Warmbier's father, Fred, speaks out during a press conference on his son's return home.
June 15, 2017: Doctors give updates on Warmbier's status during a news conference at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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“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."

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

North Korea last year released Otto Warmbier, the 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.

The North Korean mission at the United Nations did not respond to requests for comment.

Separately, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday said he was optimistic about the prospects for progress on the issue of North Korea's nuclear programme after recent diplomatic moves. "I am optimistic ... I think now things are on track for a meaningful negotiation," he told the BBC.

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