Newly confirmed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made no promises this week regarding the release of three U.S. prisoners currently being held in a North Korean labor camp.
“We’ve been asking for the release of these detainees for 17 months,” Pompeo said Tuesday, speaking with reporters en route to the North Korean capital of Pyonyang. “We’ll talk about it again. It’d be a great gesture if they’d agree to do so.”
According to Reuters, Pompeo added that he had received no commitments from North Korean officials, but hoped leaders would “do the right thing.”
BREAKING: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says he has no commitments for the release of 3 Americans in North Korea. He said he hopes North Korea will "do the right thing." He adds, "It'd be a great gesture if they'd agree to do so."
— David P Gelles (@gelles) May 8, 2018
Pompeo’s comments directly contradict earlier statements by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is currently serving as a member of President Trump’s legal team. On Thursday morning, Giuliani told Fox & Friends that North Korea would be releasing the three prisoners imminently — likely within the day.
“The president of the United States is getting ready to negotiate probably one of our most historic agreements…and we got Kim Jong-un impressed enough to be releasing three prisoners today,” he said, referring to the impending diplomatic summit between Trump and the North Korean leader.
Giuliani’s claims were later rebutted by both the White House and State Department. During a press briefing later on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders noted that Giuliani was not in any official capacity to speak to the press on matters of foreign policy; the State Department on Tuesday morning reaffirmed Sanders’ comments, adding that the former New York City mayor should not be considered an official spokesman for the president.
“He speaks for himself and not on behalf of the administration on foreign policy,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
The release of the three U.S. prisoners — Kim Hak-song, Kim Sang Duk (Tony Kim), and Kim Dong Chul — have been a sticking point for the Trump administration in recent months, as nuclear talks between the two nations ramp up. Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim, who worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), were detained in early 2017; Kim Dong Chul, a pastor, was detained earlier, in 2015. The administration, for its part, has not said whether their release would be a necessary condition of any nuclear agreement with North Korea, though the president has been vocal about attempts to bring the three men home.
“We are negotiating now. We are doing our very best,” Trump said during a press conference last month. “I think there’s a good chance of doing it. We’re having very good dialogue. We will keep you informed. But we are in there and we are working very hard on that.”
In a tweet on May 2, the president also singled out the Obama administration, claiming it had not done enough to negotiate the prisoners’ release. “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,” he wrote. “Stay tuned!”
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 3, 2018
Trump previously blamed his predecessor for not successfully negotiating the release of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was released from a North Korean prison on June 13 2017 and died six days later, after being in a coma for 17 months. Warmbier had been sentenced to 15 years hard labor in 2016 for trying to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel, as a prank.
“Frankly, if he were brought home sooner, I think the results would have been a lot different,” Trump told reporters following Warmbier’s death. “He should have been brought home a long time ago.”
The White House so far has been relatively quiet on the subject of Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim, and Kim Dong Chul, hedging any statements about the three prisoners with cautious language about North Korea’s history of using U.S. citizens and other international travelers as diplomatic hostages.
“[Their release] would be an incredible step and certainly a sign of goodwill moving into the summit,” Press Secretary Sanders said, speaking to Fox & Friends on Thursday. “We again are cautiously optimistic about where this will go. As the president has said, we’ll see what happens.”