The three American prisoners released from North Korea each had Christian connections through their work within the country, known as being among the worst perpetrators of religious freedom violations in the world.
Kim Dong-chul is a Christian pastor who was sentenced to 10 years' hard labor in North Korea in 2016, on charges of spying. Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song both taught at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a university founded in 2010 by a Christian Korean-American entrepreneur, before their arrest. They were detained for "espionage" and "hostile acts," respectively.
President Trump sees the release of the three American detainees as "a positive gesture of goodwill" leading up to his upcoming meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to a statement released by the White House on May 9.
The high profile prisoner release may be a sign that human rights will not be neglected in the continued security and peacebuilding efforts with North Korea, a question that had previously been a point of contention.
"The three Americans appear to be in good condition and were all able to walk on the plane without assistance," continued the White House statement.
In contrast, when 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier was returned to his family last year after being detained in North Korea for 17 months, he had severe brain damage and died shortly after. Warmbier had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a political poster from his hotel while on a sightseeing tour of North Korea. His parents filed a lawsuit against the North Korean government on May 3.
Open Doors USA emphasized that while the release of the three prisoners this week is a positive development, there are still tens of thousands imprisoned in the Asian country, and their situations should not be forgotten.
There are currently an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people in North Korea's six political prison camps, in which the U.S. State Department has found evidence of starvation, forced labor, and torture.
"Reports indicate that tens of thousands of prisoners facing hard labor or execution are Christians from underground churches or who practice in secret," said the 2018 report by the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.
USCIRF Associate Director of Research and Policy, Tina Mufford, underscored this point.
"Today's release of three American citizens unjustly imprisoned by the North Korean regime is welcome news, but should serve as a call to action on behalf of the tens of thousands of North Korean citizens, many of whom are Christians, currently serving prison sentences in unspeakable conditions," she said.
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"North Korea may be positioning itself on the global stage, but the regime grossly disregards international human rights standards, including freedom of religion or belief," she continued. "Any U.S. or international engagement with North Korea must include discussions about religious freedom and related human rights, in no small part because these fundamental freedoms are critical to regional and global security."
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.