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article imageTrump hints of imminent news on Americans detained in N. Korea

By Jerome CARTILLIER (AFP)     May 2, 2018 in World

US President Donald Trump hinted Wednesday that there would be imminent news about three Americans detained in North Korea, after sources said they had been relocated ahead of their possible release.

The development comes as Trump is preparing for a historic summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, following months of tense saber-rattling over the North's nuclear and missile programs.

"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 wrote on Twitter.

Two of the three hostages were detained in 2017, after Trump had assumed office.

The United States has been demanding the North free Kim Hak-song, Kim Sang-duk and Kim Dong-chul and reports have said the two sides were close to reaching a deal on their release.

"They are staying in a hotel on the outskirts of Pyongyang," Choi Sung-ryong, a South Korean activist with contacts in the North told AFP earlier, adding the three were being kept separately but "going on tours, receiving medical treatment and eating good food."

Diplomatic sources in Pyongyang have said there were rumors that the three had been relocated, but there had been no confirmation of their exact whereabouts.

A State Department official could not confirm the reports, but added: "We are working to see US citizens who are detained in North Korea come home as soon as possible."

The matter was discussed when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to Pyongyang last month, according to The Wall Street Journal.

And speaking to Fox News on Sunday, National Security Advisor John Bolton said releasing the hostages would be "an opportunity" for the North to "demonstrate their authenticity."

Kim Dong-chul, a South Korea-born American pastor, has been detained in the North since 2015 when he was arrested for spying. He was sentenced to 10 years' hard labor in 2016.

Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang-duk -- or Tony Kim -- were both working at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, founded by evangelical Christians from overseas, when they were detained last year on suspicion of "hostile acts."

CNN had said the prisoners' release was also discussed at three-day talks in Stockholm between the North's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Swedish counterpart Margot Wallstrom in March.

Sweden represents Washington's interests in the North.

- Detente -

Tensions between North Korea and its neighbors as well as the US spiked last year over the Pyongyang's testing of atomic weapons and long-range missiles, including some capable of reaching the US mainland.

"The past Administration has long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North Ko...
"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!" President Trump wrote on Twitter

But a spectacular detente in recent months -- with a summit approaching between Trump and Kim, and the prospect of denuclearization -- have fed hopes of a historic turning point in the region.

Seoul and Pyongyang have remained technically at war since the 1950s but South Korean President Moon Jae-In and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed at a landmark summit last week to work towards a permanent treaty to replace a 65-year-old armistice.

Preparations for the Trump-Kim meeting have gathered further momentum since the Korean summit, for which the US president has hinted at several possible locations.

He has talked up the idea of holding it in the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas -- where Kim and Moon met -- and also floated Singapore as an option.

Mongolia and Switzerland are also sites reportedly under consideration.

"The United States has never been closer to potentially having something happen with respect to the Korean peninsula, that can get rid of the nuclear weapons," Trump told reporters earlier this week, voicing confidence the summit would go ahead -- and reiterating he would walk away if it failed to live up to his expectations.

But as remarkable as the imagery and symbolism have been recently, many analysts point out that it is early to speculate on the outcome of ongoing negotiations with a regime that has been led with an iron fist by the Kim dynasty for nearly 70 years.

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