N Korea frees 3 Americans ahead of summit

Matt Spetalnick and James Oliphant
Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song are on their way home after being released by North Korea

North Korea has released three American prisoners and handed them over to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, clearing a major obstacle to an unprecedented summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The men, who were freed after Pompeo met Kim, were on their way home aboard the chief US diplomat's plane, and Trump said he would greet them when they arrived at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington on Thursday morning.

The release gave Trump a chance to tout a diplomatic achievement just a day after his decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal drew heavy criticism from European allies and others.

"I appreciate Kim Jong Un doing this and allowing them to go," Trump told reporters at the White House.

Kim's handover of the Americans was in response to an official suggestion from Trump, the North Korean state news agency KCNA said in its account of the talks with Pompeo.

It was their second encounter in less than six weeks to prepare the first-ever meeting between sitting US and North Korean leaders.

Kim said the summit would be an "excellent first step" toward an improved situation on the Korean peninsula, according to KCNA. Though tensions have eased recently, it was just months ago that fears of war were running high in the region.

The fate of the three Korean-Americans had been among a number of delicate issues in the run-up to summit, which is being planned for late May or early June.

As Pompeo returned to his Pyongyang hotel from a 90-minute meeting with Kim, the secretary of state crossed his fingers when asked by reporters if there was good news about the prisoners.

A North Korean official came to the hotel shortly afterwards to inform Pompeo that Kim had granted them "amnesty," according to a senior US official present for the exchange.

Pompeo replied: "That's great."

"You should make care that they do not make the same mistakes again," the North Korean official was quoted as saying. "This was a hard decision."

The three, who walked without assistance to Pompeo's plane and were seated near medical personnel, were in the air less than an hour after leaving custody.

They are Korean-American missionary Kim Dong-chul, detained in 2015; Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim, who spent a month teaching at the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) before he was arrested in 2017; and Kim Hak-song, who also taught at PUST and was detained last year.

Trump said agreement had been reached on a date and venue for the summit and details would be announced within three days.

He has ruled out the heavily fortified demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, increasing the possibility the meeting could take place in Singapore, which he previously said was under consideration.