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Pompeo Secures Release Of 3 American Detainees In North Korea


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is returning from North Korea after meeting with its leader, Kim Jong Un. Pompeo finalized plans for a summit between Kim and President Trump, who tweeted the news of this himself. Pompeo also secured the release of three Americans detained in North Korea, and they are flying back on Pompeo's plane. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul. He's covering this.

Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hey there, David.

GREENE: Sounds like the secretary of state met some important objectives for this trip.

KUHN: Yeah. He did what he laid out for himself, what he said he was going to do. He wasn't sure he was going to meet with Kim Jong Un, but he did. They seem to have finalized a date and place for this summit, although they haven't announced it yet. And he also wasn't sure that he was going to come home with the American citizens who were imprisoned in North Korea, but he did say that had he not been able to do it, it would've been hard for the summit to go ahead with those men still locked up.

Now, it's interesting that we were getting details of all this from two American reporters who were accompanying Pompeo, but then towards the end, they went silent, and then President Trump tweeted out the news himself. And this news was greeted here in Seoul by South Korea's leadership, and they said it looks like a very good lead in to a U.S.-North Korea summit. And they also called on North Korea to release six of its citizens from South Korea who are detained in the North.

GREENE: OK, so we'll see if North Korea acts on that, as well. But the Americans who are on their way home with the secretary of state - can you remind us who they are?

KUHN: OK, they share some things in common. They're all U.S. citizens of Korean descent. They all share the same surname, Kim. They all have some sort of religious affiliation. One is a pastor. One is a self-described missionary. Two of them taught at this school called the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which was founded by evangelical Christians and teaches children of North Korean elites. And 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.

GREENE: Well, whatever they were detained for, it sounded like President Trump wanted to see this happen ahead of going forward with this summit. Now that these detainees are coming home, what does that tell us about this summit and the chances for it not just happening, but being some sort of success and seeing North Korea move on with some of these concessions that the U.S. wants?

KUHN: Well, this may change the U.S. perception of things a little bit. Going into this Pompeo meeting, they were very cautious about their expectations. They pointed out that as recently as New Year's Eve - a New Year's Eve address, Kim Jong Un said, we're going to make nuclear weapons and ways to deliver them to U.S. soil. So they were unsure of his intentions, and they spoke about denuclearization in a very different way. They said, North Korea's got to give up all these nukes before we lift sanctions or cut them any slack. But that's very different from how South Korea and China see it. They say you've got to give them something; you've got to let them make a move and then reward them for each thing they do.

GREENE: And Anthony, we should say that this trip by Pompeo to North Korea - I mean, it's part of what sounds like it's a real diplomatic frenzy in the region over the past 24 hours or so.

KUHN: So much has been going on. In the past 24 hours, we've also seen Kim Jong Un meeting with Xi Jinping in China, his second trip there already. Xi Jinping called President Trump, and the prime ministers of China, South Korea and Japan all met to sort of coordinate their positions. And probably the best thing to come out of this was that Kim Jong Un restated his intention, saying, you know, if the U.S. removes its hostile policies and its threats, we do not need to remain a nuclear nation.

GREENE: All right, I just want to restate the news for our listeners, Anthony, that this summit between North Korea and the United States - President Trump and Kim - that date and time and place set, but not announced yet. And Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, is on his way home with three Americans who were detained by North Korea. Speaking with NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thanks, Anthony.

KUHN: Sure thing, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.