“Bring our boys home,” Mr. Pence told Mr. Pompeo.
White House officials knew that once Mr. Pompeo left his plane in Pyongyang, he would lose the ability to communicate securely during the 13 hours he would spend on the ground. They were cautious about saying anything about the clandestine mission until the detainees were on an American government plane.
Mr. Pence kept the secret on Tuesday when he briefed senators on Mr. Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal. Asked about the prisoners, the vice president said only that the administration was working diligently to free them. Mr. Trump was less discreet, telling reporters that “we’ll all soon be finding out” whether the detainees would come home.
Mr. Pence spoke with Mr. Pompeo when his plane landed Wednesday in Japan and received an update on the condition of the freed prisoners, who were described as healthy and able to walk on their own.
All three ran afoul of a government deeply suspicious of foreigners. Kim Dong-chul, a businessman and naturalized American citizen from the Virginia suburbs of Washington, was arrested in October 2015, convicted of spying and sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor.
Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk, was arrested in April 2017 while trying to board a plane to leave the country. He had spent a month teaching accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a Christian-funded college.
Kim Hak-song, who volunteered at the college’s agricultural research farm, was arrested in May 2017. According to CNN, he was born in China near the North Korean border and emigrated to the United States in the 1990s, later returning to China and eventually moving to Pyongyang.
“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, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, South Korea. “It also delivers a political score for the scandal-ridden President Trump at home, giving him something to brag about.”
But Evans J. R. Revere, a former State Department diplomat who specializes in East Asia, pointed out that North Korea has a long history of seizing and imprisoning Americans, then using them as bargaining chips. “I would not give Pyongyang too much credit for undoing something it shouldn’t have been doing in the first place,” he said.