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Trump, allies tout imminent good news on 3 Americans held by North Korea

The status of three Americans detained in North Korea remained unclear on Thursday as anticipation builds over their possible release.

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Kevin Liptak
Elizabeth Landers (CNN)
(CNN) — The status of three Americans detained in North Korea remained unclear on Thursday as anticipation builds over their possible release.

President Donald Trump and his allies outside the government sought to fan the heightened expectations, casting the potential development as evidence of his negotiating prowess ahead of a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Rudy Giuliani, a member of Trump's legal team but not himself an employee of the government, said Thursday morning the release would happen within the day.

"We got Kim Jong Un impressed enough to be releasing three prisoners today," Giuliani said on "Fox & Friends."

Trump, after tweeting about the Americans Wednesday evening with instructions to "stay tuned," said during a Rose Garden event on Thursday that "some very good announcements" would be coming shortly, but did not specify on what.

An official with knowledge of the ongoing negotiations told CNN the release of the detained Americans is "imminent" following months of talks.

Still working to verify

But inside the White House and State Department, officials were still working to verify reports the three Americans had been moved from labor camps to a hotel in Pyongyang. The families of the prisoners, meanwhile, said they had received no new information about their loved ones.

A US official said the administration is "confident" the Americans held in North Korea will be released, but offered no speculation on timing. As of Wednesday evening, the US had not yet received direct confirmation from Pyongyang that the Americans had left the work camps. The Americans' conditions are also unknown, according to the official.

Planning is underway for Trump's closely watched summit with Kim, which is expected to occur by early June. Members of the President's national security team met on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the talks, including their potential location.

Trump has expressed a preference for the inter-Koran Demilitarized Zone, saying if the meeting is successful it would provide a celebratory backdrop. But some of his aides have warned that holding the summit there could appear as if Trump is traveling to Kim's territory instead of meeting on neutral ground, like Singapore.

No final decisions on a date or location for the summit were made at Wednesday's national security meeting, officials said. But the release of the detained Americans would be seen as a positive development ahead of talks.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday morning she didn't have an official statement about the potential release, only saying that "we think that that would be an incredible sign of goodwill, and certainly a great statement for the North Koreans to make ahead of the summit and the discussions."

She declined to answer a question about why Giuliani made the announcement as opposed to the White House. The National Security Council also declined to comment on why Giuliani, who served on Trump's outside legal team, was making announcements like this during a cable news interview.


Some members of the administration were frustrated as reports of the American detainees' release seemed to get ahead of official US pronouncements -- fueled partly by the President's own lawyer.

"This isn't how we should be doing this," sighed one US official after Giuliani's appearance on Fox. The official said the administration had hoped any announcement about the Americans' release would come from the President himself.

Nevertheless, the official said there was confidence the Americans would be released as part of negotiations with North Korea -- a fact they said demonstrated Trump's ability to extract concessions from Kim.

The three Americans -- Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang Duk, also known as Tony Kim -- have been detained in North Korea for months. Kim Dong Chul has been in North Korean custody since before Trump was elected, and the other two detainees were arrested last spring, after Trump's inauguration and as tensions between Washington and Pyongyang were beginning to ramp up.

Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, who were arrested in April and May of 2017 respectively, were both accused of carrying out "hostile acts" against the Kim regime. Both worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) which bills itself as the only privately run university in the North Korean capital.

Kim Dong Chul was arrested in 2015 for spying on behalf of South Korea, he told CNN in January 2016. The interview was conducted in the presence of North Korean officials, so CNN could not determine whether Kim's comments were made under duress.

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