WASHINGTON/SEOUL - Singapore is the most likely venue for a summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a US official said, after Pyongyang cleared a major obstacle to the meeting with the release of three American prisoners.
The three prisoners, freed after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Kim in the North Korean capital, were flying back to Washington where Trump said he planned to meet them early on Thursday.
The release of the men appeared to signal an effort by Kim to improve the tone for the summit and followed his recent pledge to suspend missile tests and shut a nuclear bomb test site.
A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Singapore has emerged as the likeliest location for the planned summit after Trump ruled out holding it at the heavily fortified demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.
Trump, who previously said Singapore was under consideration, said agreement had been reached on a date and venue and details would be announced within three days.
The release of the prisoners 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 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," Trump wrote on Twitter.
"I appreciate Kim Jong Un doing this and allowing them to go," Trump told reporters at the White House.
The three men 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.
"We would like to express our deep appreciation to the United States government, President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and the people of the United States for bringing us home," the three said in a statement released by the State Department as their plane stopped over in Alaska.
"We thank God, and all our families and friends who prayed for us and for our return. God Bless America, the greatest nation in the world." North Korean state media said they were arrested either for subversion or "hostile acts" against the government.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said that while there was"reason for some optimism" about the Kim-Trump summit, the US troop presence in South Korea would not be part of initial negotiations.
There was also no sign that Pompeo's visit had cleared up the question of whether North Korea would be willing to bargain away nuclear missiles that might threaten the United States.
Trump has credited his "maximum pressure" campaign for drawing North Korea to the table and has vowed to keep sanctions in place until Pyongyang takes concrete steps to denuclearize.
But former spy chief Kim Yong Chul, director of North Korea's United Front Department, said in a toast to Pompeo over lunch in Pyongyang: "We have perfected our nuclear capability. It is our policy to concentrate all efforts into economic progress ... This is not the result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside." Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while the release was not an explicit precondition for the Trump-Kim meeting, the North Koreans understood that they had to do it for any progress to be made.
"The North Koreans have still said nothing to indicate that they are willing to give up their nuclear weapons, not to mention permanently and verifiably dismantle their nuclear programmes," she said.
"We have no clarity about Kim's intentions." Pompeo will now meet South Korea's foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, on Friday to prepare for Trump's meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-In on May 22 and his later meeting with Kim, the South Korean foreign ministry said.