President Trump announced on Wednesday that North Korea had freed three American prisoners, removing a bitter and emotional obstacle ahead of a planned meeting between him and the young leader of the nuclear-armed nation.
The release of the three prisoners, all American citizens of Korean descent, was a diplomatic victory for Mr. Trump and in some ways the most tangible gesture of sincerity shown by North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, to improve relations with the United States after nearly seven decades of mutual antagonism.
Mr. Trump said in a tweet that the three were freed following a visit to North Korea by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was in Pyongyang, the North’s capital, for more discussions with North Korean officials about the expected meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump.
The president said that Mr. Pompeo was “in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen” and that the group seemed “to be in good health.”
I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2018
South Korea welcomed the release of the prisoners — two of whom were arrested during Mr. Trump’s presidency — calling it “very positive for a successful North Korean-United States summit,” said Yoon Young-chan, a spokesman for President Moon Jae-in.
A senior United States official said the prisoner release was an American condition to the planned talks between the leaders of the United States and North Korea.
Mr. Trump said on Wednesday that the meeting would not be held in the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas. He would not disclose the exact date and place, but has previously cited Singapore, a neutral site favored by some of his advisers, as an option. The president said an announcement with the details would come in three days.
The meeting would be the first face-to-face encounter between the top leaders of the two nations; Mr. Trump, 71, hopes to persuade Mr. Kim, 34, to abandon his nuclear weapons and the missiles that can carry them.
“This show of good will is a positive signal for the U.S.-North Korean summit because it reflects a willingness to negotiate and compromise,” said Lee Byong-chul, senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. “It also delivers a political score for the scandal-ridden President Trump at home, giving him something to brag about.”
American detainees in North Korea have been an especially delicate issue between the two countries. One of them, Otto F. Warmbier, an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in 2016 for trying to take a propaganda poster while on a trip to North Korea. He died last June shortly after being released in a coma, having spent 17 months in captivity.
His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, recently filed a lawsuit in the United States accusing North Korea of kidnapping and fatally torturing their son, and last week they appeared at the United Nations to speak out about human rights abuses in North Korea.
“They used him as a political pawn for as long as they could,” Mr. Warmbier said of his son, “and when he was of no value to them, they essentially sent him home to our family in a body bag.”
The three Americans now released include Kim Dong-chul, a businessman who had been sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in April 2016 after being convicted of spying and other offenses.