TOKYO — The three U.S. citizens still being held in North Korea are in fairly healthy condition and were allowed to meet with the State Department’s top official on North Korea, Joseph Yun, when he traveled to Pyongyang this week.
Yun went on a secret mission to North Korea to bring out Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was detained in January 2016 and fell into a coma for reasons that are not yet clear.
Warmbier arrived home in Ohio on Tuesday and was taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. His condition has not been disclosed, but his parents plan to speak to the news media Thursday.
The revelation that he had been in a coma in North Korea for more than a year will inject new momentum into efforts to free the other three who are detained there, said Evans Revere, a former senior official in the State Department who still talks to North Korean representatives.
“The suspicions and the concerns about the way that Otto was treated [are] going to lead to a very determined effort by the administration to put pressure on North Korea and get these men out of there,” Revere said. “The North Koreans will realize there will be very negative consequences.”
While he was securing Warmbier’s release, Yun met Monday with the three Americans still being held there, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.
All three men were in a healthy state, under the circumstances, one said. There was no information about where they were being held or under what conditions.
The three include Kim Dong-chul, a 63-year-old former Fairfax County, Va., resident who was arrested in October 2015, a few months before Warmbier.
Kim had moved to the northeastern Chinese city of Yanji in 2001 and had been working in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone, just over the border in North Korea, as head of a trade and hotel services company.
Accused of espionage and subversion, Kim was brought before cameras in March of last year to deliver a highly choreographed confession, similar to one that Warmbier was made to give.
That was the last time Kim has been seen in public. In April, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison at hard labor.
The Swedish ambassador to North Korea, who represents U.S. interests there because Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations, accompanied Yun.
The ambassador was allowed to visit Kim last month, according to another person with knowledge of the visit. “He was okay,” that person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive situation.
The Swedes had been denied consular access to all the American detainees until last month, when an agreement was reached during a secret meeting in Oslo between Yun and high-level North Korean officials.
They agreed that Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang would be allowed to visit the four imprisoned Americans. But the Swedes were allowed to see only one, Kim.
They were not permitted to see Warmbier until after North Korean diplomats at the United Nations in New York disclosed his condition to U.S. officials on June 6. Yun, accompanied by two American doctors, saw Warmbier on Monday and demanded his release on humanitarian grounds.
The other two Americans being held were affiliated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a private institution run by Korean American Christians.
Kim Hak-song, who was an agricultural consultant at PUST, was detained in early May on suspicion of “hostile acts” against North Korea, the official Korean Central News Agency said. “A relevant institution is now conducting a detailed investigation into his crimes,” it said.
That came on the heels of the arrest in late April of another U.S. citizen, Kim Sang-dok, or Tony Kim, who had been teaching a class in international finance and management at PUST.
Neither has been seen publicly since their arrests because the North Korean regime has not paraded them in front of cameras or put them on trial.
PUST is the only private educational institution in North Korea. It is run by a Korean American professor and funded largely by Christian groups. It began offering classes in English to the North Korean elite in 2010.
At least 16 U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea in the past 10 years, according to the State Department’s travel advisory.
Most of them have been released only after a high-profile envoy — former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have served in that capacity — traveled to North Korea to get them out.
A Canadian pastor, Lim Hyeon-soo, also is being held in North Korea, having been given a life sentence after being convicted of subversion.
Lim, who is in his early 60s, had visited North Korea about 100 times. He was arrested in Pyongyang in 2015 while traveling on a humanitarian mission.