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3 Americans Held In North Korea May Be Released Soon, Trump Tweets


In 2009, the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il, released two American detainees when Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang. Now it seems his son, Kim Jong Un, may release three other Americans. This, of course, comes as a meeting between Kim Jong Un and President Trump is in the works. The president alluded to the possibility during a press conference last month.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: The fact is that they do have three prisoners. We have been talking about them. We're negotiating now. We are doing our very best.

MARTIN: The president then tweeted about this week with the message, quote, "stay tuned." And yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders had this message.


SARAH SANDERS: We think 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.

MARTIN: Anna Fifield is Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post, and she joins us now.

Anna, the White House is feeling optimistic that these Americans could be released. Do you think that's realistic?

ANNA FIFIELD: Yeah, I do think it's realistic because the North Koreans are clearly showing that they want to lay the groundwork for a positive meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump, whenever that may be. And so this is a really easy step that they could take to build goodwill to give President Trump a victory, you know, tangible victory either at or before the summit. So I think this is the kind of card that they would want to play at this moment. And we've already seen with the summit with South Korea that Kim Jong Un is really ready to deal and ready to play ball this time.

MARTIN: Can you tell us just a little bit about who these three people are?

FIFIELD: Sure. They are three Korean-American men, all naturalized American citizens, all in their late 50s or early 60s. And all of them had been working in some way in North Korea. The first one to have been detained that was actually before Otto Warmbier was detained - it was in 2015 - is Kim Dong-Chul. And then last year in April, we had two men who had been working at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which is a Korean-American-run private university in the capital. And all three of them were detained for basically trying to overthrow the regime, whatever that may mean for North Korea.

MARTIN: What do we know about their treatment? Do we know anything about how they've been treated?

FIFIELD: We know very, very little about them. The last time they were seen or heard of was in June last year when a State Department official went to Pyongyang to collect Otto Warmbier, who was in a coma at the time. And he was allowed to see the three men in a hotel in Pyongyang very briefly. But he said at the time that they seemed to be doing as well as could be hoped under the circumstances and that they seemed to be relatively healthy and trying to just basically hang in there. That's the last we heard of them. They have been denied consular access to the Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang who represent American interests. Since then, North Korea has said that they had been treating these three men as prisoners of war because they consider themselves to be on a war footing with the United States.

MARTIN: So is this all about the big moment, the big optics of this upcoming summit, or would these - would the regime be considering releasing these men otherwise?

FIFIELD: I think optics has a lot to do with it. And the North Koreans know that President Trump likes moments, you know, made for TV and that the images of this would be, you know, something that he would want to be able to, you know, tout. But also, I think there's no doubt that President Trump's maximum-pressure campaign has been putting a lot of pressure on North Korea and helping to bring them to the table. I don't think it's the whole story, but it certainly had an influence and, you know, made them be prepared now to engage in diplomacy.

MARTIN: Anna Fifield of The Washington Post. We reached her on Skype this morning. Anna, thank you so much.

FIFIELD: Great to be here, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.