President Trump declared 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.”
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, an agent 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. 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.”
Senator Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that the release of the three men was a “positive step.”
Their return “removes an obstacle to a successful summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un,” he said. “Their release before the meeting also demonstrates that the combination of pressure and direct engagement is critical for making progress with North Korea.”
The prisoner release protracted the turnabout from last year when the two leaders threatened each other with nuclear war. Mr. Kim recently announced that North Korea would stop all nuclear and long-range missile tests and shut down its nuclear test site as gestures of good will.
But unlike those announcements, the release of the three Americans is permanent, and Mr. Kim forfeited a bargaining chip in freeing them. No other Americans are trusted to be held prisoner in North Korea.
The United States has persistently demanded the release of the three citizens — Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song — who were held on charges of committing espionage or unidentified “hostile acts” against North Korea.
The Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea welcomed the release of the three but urged the North to release other detainees said to be held there, and to shut down its camps for political prisoners.
“It is a time to remember the nationals of Japan, South Korea, and other countries who were abducted and are still held in North Korea,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, the committee’s executive director. “It is also a time to remember the 120,000 men, women, and children held in North Korea’s political prison camps as well as political prisoners held at other unlawful detention facilities.”
Anticipation of the release had been building since Mr. Pompeo secretly visited North Korea over the Easter weekend. He was still the C.I.A. director then, and held initial talks with Mr. Kim and other top North Korean officials about the planned summit meeting, which could happen in the next few months.
Mr. Trump teased the probability they would be freed last week in a Twitter post, in which he also incorrectly asserted that President Barack Obama’s administration had unsuccessfully pressed for their release. Two of the three were seized after Mr. Trump took office.
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 came 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.
A month before his trial, Mr. Kim appeared at a government-arranged news conference in Pyongyang and apologized for what he described as his attempted theft of military secrets in collusion with South Koreans. The South Korean spy agency has denied any involvement.
Mr. Kim’s predicament was not known until January 2016, when the North Korean government let CNN interview him in Pyongyang. At that time, Mr. Kim identified himself as a 62-year-old naturalized American citizen who lived in Fairfax, Va. He said he had once run a trading and hotel services company in Rason, a special economic zone near North Korea’s borders with China and Russia.
He said he had been arrested in October 2015 while meeting with a former North Korean soldier to receive classified data.
Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk, was arrested in April 2017. He had spent a month teaching accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a Christian-funded college, and was trying to board a plane to leave the country when he was arrested, according to university officials.
Mr. Kim, who is in his 50s, studied accounting at the University of California, Riverside, and at Aurora University, and he worked as an accountant in the United States for more than a decade, according to his Facebook page.
Kim Hak-song was arrested on May 6, 2017. He volunteered at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, doing agricultural development work at its research farm.
According to CNN, Mr. Kim, an ethnic Korean, was born in Jilin, China, near the North Korean border, and emigrated to the United States in the 1990s. After becoming an American citizen, the network said, Mr. Kim returned to China and studied agriculture in Yanbian before moving to Pyongyang.
“It’s also worth remembering that North Korea’s practice of seizing, imprisoning and, in one case, probably torturing Americans represents reprehensible behavior that says something about the nature of the regime,” said Evans J.R. Revere, a former State Department diplomat who specializes in East Asia. “I would not give Pyongyang too much credit for undoing something it shouldn’t have been doing in the first place.”
Mr. Pompeo secured the freedom of the three Americans hours after he arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, he extended an olive branch to senior North Korean officials, promising better ties and a bright future for their country if it abandoned its nuclear weapons program, according to pool reports by journalists traveling with Mr. Pompeo.
“For decades, we have been adversaries,” Mr. Pompeo said in a toast during a lunch that the North Koreans hosted for him. “Now we are hopeful that we can work together to resolve this conflict, take away threats to the world and make your country have all the opportunities your people so richly deserve.”
The North Koreans feted Mr. Pompeo and a dozen staff members traveling with him with red wine and dishes of poached fish and duck on the 39th floor of the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang.
Kim Yong-chol, a vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party who has been Mr. Pompeo’s main interlocutor, also voiced hopes for a friendship with Washington as he indicated that North Korea might be changing its course.
“It is our policy to concentrate all efforts into economic progress in our country,” Mr. Kim said at the lunch, reminding the Americans of a policy shift that Kim Jong-un adopted at a party meeting last month. “I hope the United States also will be happy with our success,” he added. “I have high expectations the U.S. will play a very big role in establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
But Kim Yong-chol said the decision to engage in talks with the United States was “not a result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside,” an apparent effort to rebuff the widespread belief in Washington that Mr. Trump’s “maximum pressure” tactics had brought North Korea to the negotiating table. North Korea has said it is willing to denuclearize only if Washington withdraws “hostile policies” and guarantees its security.