North Korea in talks to release United States detainees

North Korea is in talks with the United States and Sweden to release three jailed Americans as part of increased diplomatic activity ahead of Pyongyang’s planned summits with Washington and Seoul.

The release of the three Korean-Americans is under discussion through multiple channels more than a week after President Donald Trump agreed to meet the North’s Kim Jong Un, according to several media reports.

Pyongyang has yet to confirm it even made the US summit offer – relayed by Seoul envoys who had met Kim in Pyongyang – but South Korea said he had given his word about his commitment to denuclearisation.

Mr Trump’s stunning announcement has triggered a race to set a credible agenda for what would be historic talks between the two leaders.

Seoul-based MBC TV station reported on Sunday that Pyongyang and Washington had “practically reached” a final agreement on the release of US citizens Kim Hak-song, Kim Sang-duk and Kim Dong-chul. “They are hammering out details over the timing of the release,” it quoted a South Korean diplomatic source as saying.

The negotiation was held through the North’s mission to the United Nations and the US State Department — an unofficial avenue of communication dubbed the “New York channel”, the source said.

CNN said the potential release of the three prisoners was also discussed at three-day talks in Stockholm between the North’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Swedish counterpart Margot Wallstrom that ended Saturday.

Sweden represents Washington’s interests in the North. It raised the issue of American detainees to “move things in the right direction”, CNN quoted one source as saying.

Kim Dong-chul, a South Korea-born American pastor, has been detained by the North since 2015 when he was arrested for spying. He was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour 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”.

 

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