May 2, 2018 / 10:07 PM / 2 months ago

U.S. checks reports three American detainees relocated in North Korea: official

WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) - The U.S. government is looking into reports that three Americans detained in North Korea were relocated from a labor camp to a hotel near Pyongyang, ahead of a planned summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a U.S. official said.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity on Wednesday, said there was no immediate confirmation of any change in the detainees’ status. Trump administration officials have pressed for their release as a show of goodwill by North Korea before the unprecedented U.S.-North Korea summit expected to take place in late May or early June.

“As everybody is aware, 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 said in a Twitter post late on Wednesday.

CNN cited an unnamed source in a report on Thursday as saying the release of the three men was imminent, adding the groundwork for the move came two months ago when North Korea’s foreign minister traveled to Sweden and proposed the idea.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who joined Trump’s legal team last month, told the Fox News Channel that North Korea would release the three prisoners on Thursday.

The White House did not respond to an emailed request for comment, and it was not immediately clear whether Giuliani had direct knowledge of the negotiations over the planned release.

South Korean media reports on Wednesday quoted a South Korean activist as saying North Korea had relocated the three Americans from a labor camp to a hotel on the outskirts of Pyongyang. Choi Soung-yong, the activist, told Reuters that Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong-chul were moved in early April following instructions from superior authorities, citing residents in Pyongyang.

The United States and North Korea “seem to have decided on a date to release these people,” said Choi. “North Korea probably wants to straighten out their affairs; rehabilitate them.”

The activist added the three were being kept in separate rooms in the same hotel and he did not know what had happened to them since being relocated.

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

“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State. We are working to see U.S. citizens who are detained in North Korea come home as soon as possible,” she said.

Randall Brandt, a spokesman for Tony Kim’s family, said in an email: “While we are encouraged by overall momentum, the family has no indication of a release and has had no contact with Tony since Ambassador Yun last June.”

He was referring to Joseph Yun, the State Department’s former North Korea negotiator, who saw the detainees on a visit to Pyongyang last year.

Sol Kim, the son of detainee Tony Kim, said on social media that he was optimistic but had no information.

“Thank you for your continued prayers and efforts to help bring them home,” he said.

Tony Kim, one of the three Americans being held captive by North Korea, is seen in this photo taken in California in 2016, released to Reuters by the family of Tony Kim March 11, 2018. Courtesy of the family of Tony Kim/Handout via REUTERS

Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Susan Heavey, David Brunnstrom and Eric Walsh in Washington, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Additional reporting by Makini Brice in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney, Cynthia Osterman, Lisa Shumaker, Nick Macfie and Bernadette Baum

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