Three Americans who had been long detained by the North Korean government, including a missionary and a pastor, have been freed and are en route back to the United States with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
President Donald Trump tweeted the news Wednesday morning. He plans to meet the men when they arrive at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland between 2 and 3 a.m. on Thursday.
“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,” he wrote.
As previously reported, among the detainees is Kim Dong-chul, a pastor from Fairfax, Virginia who had been working in the country to help the poor. Dong-chul had traveled to various states to raise funds for his humanitarian work, speaking at various churches in New York, California and Washington, D.C., as he focused on delivering medical supplies to the needy.
He was arrested in 2015 on suspicion of spying for the South Koreans, and was sentenced the following year to 10 years hard labor.
Kim Hak-song, who is stated to be a pastor affiliated with the Oriental Mission Church in Los Angeles, has been held for the past year for engaging in alleged “hostile acts” against the North Korean government. He had been working in the agricultural department at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim, has likewise been detained since 2017 after being accused of “criminal acts of hostility” toward the North Koreans. He similarly taught at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a school that was reportedly founded by Christians.
“We are very grateful for the release of our husband and father, Tony Kim, and the other two American detainees,” Sang-duk’s family said in a statement on the Facebook page Free USA 3.
“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 stated.
The releases take place following two visits by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and ahead of a scheduled meeting between dictator Kim Jong-Un and President Trump.
“Experts basically believe that these three were basically detained in order to serve as bargaining chips with the U.S. for North Korea, or even, in the event of a military conflict, human shields,” explains NPR’s Anthony Kuhl.
North Korea has been known as one of the most difficult places to live as a Christian, and has been listed at the top of Open Doors USA’s “World Watch List” for 16 years in a row.
“President Trump appreciates leader Kim Jong Un’s action to release these American citizens, and views this as a positive gesture of goodwill,” the White House remarked in a statement. “The three Americans appear to be in good condition and were all able to walk on the plane without assistance.”