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Trump administration pushes for release of Americans held by North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on April 20, 2018. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

KCNA/REUTERS

The Trump administration is pressing for the release of three Americans held in North Korea in the lead-up to the potential summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, which is slated for early this summer.

"We are negotiating now. We are doing our very best," Mr. Trump said last week in a press conference about the release of the Americans. "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."

Mr. Trump cited the memory of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year old American student, who was released last year after spending time in a North Korean prison and died just days later. Mr. Trump called it a "very sad event." At the time, Warmbier's family expressed devastation that their son came home in a vegetative state, saying that he was brain dead.

The administration indicates that CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who is also nominated to be secretary of state, has been focused on the release of these individuals. Pompeo met with Kim Jong-un earlier this month to discuss Mr. Trump's possible summit with the leader. The State Department says that a government-wide effort is currently underway to return the Americans as part of the broader U.S. strategy towards North Korea.

"We are working to see U.S. citizens who are detained in North Korea come home as soon as possible," said a State Department official. "I can't go into the details regarding internal U.S. government preparations, but a comprehensive, whole-of-government effort in support of the president is underway."

The Americans currently being held are Kim Hak-song, Kim Sang-duk, and Kim Dong Chul.

It is not always the case that an administration will press for the release of U.S. prisoners alongside negotiations on another topic, but there is precedent for this sort of dialogue.  For example, when the Obama administration was working to establish the Iran nuclear deal there was a parallel channel discussing Americans held in Iran. The work on both fronts came to fruition – four Americans were released around the same time that the Iran deal became official. 

The timing of the possible release of American citizens is unclear and questions are being raised about the possibility that the U.S. may require their release as a necessary precedent to the talks. 

Senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, did not steer clear of that possibility when he indicated that the three Americans might come home even before Trump and Kim Jong-un meet.

"I know the president and Director Pompeo, who will soon be Secretary Pompeo, is committed to bringing those Americans home. I hope that will happen before this, this summit occurs," Cotton said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation."

Pompeo's visit to North Korea was initially kept a secret, but weeks later, Mr. Trump followed up reports of the visit with a tweet that confirmed the trip. Mr. Trump declared that the meeting went "very smoothly and a good relationship was formed."

North Korean experts say that the Pompeo visit cannot be the only meeting between now and the time of the possible summit. There are still details to be worked out, and there is still no firm date or location for the meeting.