WASHINGTON — The release of three American prisoners from North Korea was hailed as an important first step in addressing abuses within the nation, as U.S. leaders call for a continued expansion of religious-freedom initiatives in U.S. foreign policy.

The freed prisoners were expected to arrive in the U.S. early Thursday morning, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had traveled to Pyongyang to finalized negotiations surrounding their release.  

David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, an advocacy group for persecuted Christians, called news of the prisoner release “a great victory for these families and one critical step toward restoring diplomatic relations with North Korea.”

However, he cautioned, “To keep progressing, this first gesture of goodwill must now be followed by further actions to address the long-running, systematic human-rights abuses that still plague the people of North Korea.”

The May 9 release of Tony Kim, Kim Hak-song and Kim Dong-chul from North Korea comes as the U.S. government is looking to expand its promotion of religious freedom abroad through both economic development and security partnerships.

In a May 8 policy briefing at the U.S. House of Representatives Cannon office building, Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said that he had recently met with leaders in the Department of Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to discuss the promotion of religious freedom in their fields.

Among the new developments, USAID will be adding a “religious-freedom grid” as a part of the programs that it funds, according to Brownback, who also said that “we are training military leaders around the world on religious freedom.”

Browback’s pragmatic approach includes advancing an idea that religious freedom contributes to greater economic growth and security.

Religious freedom “is not only a God-given human right, which I think should be enough, but it is going to grow our economy and grow our security. And we want to project that around the world,” he said.

The European Union counterpart to Ambassador Brownback, Ján Figel, also spoke about E.U. approaches to promote greater international religious freedom at the May 8 briefing, which was co-hosted by the International Catholic Legislators Network and the Religious Freedom Institute.

The U.S. will also be expanding its advocacy efforts on behalf of prisoners of conscience, announced the chairman of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Daniel Mark, at a separate event May 8.

Through the Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project, USCIRF compiles a list of people who are imprisoned for their faith or religious-freedom promotion and advocates for their release.

Mark said that USCIRF is ramping up efforts to compile an even larger list of prisoners of conscience, especially for the “countries of particular concern” listed in their recently released 2018 report.

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, 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 May 9.

The high-profile prisoner release may be a sign that human rights will not be neglected in the continued security and peace-building 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 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.

“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.”