North Korea released three American prisoners and handed them over to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday, clearing a major obstacle to an unprecedented summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The men, who were freed after Mr Pompeo met Mr Kim, were on their way home aboard the chief US diplomat’s plane, which stopped in Alaska to refuel before heading to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
Mr Trump said he would greet them when they arrived at at the base on Thursday morning local time.
“We would like to express our deep appreciation to the United States government, President Trump, Secretary Pompeo and the people of the United States for bringing us home,” the three said in a statement released by the State Department as their plane stopped over in Alaska.
“We thank God, and all our families and friends who prayed for us and for our return. God Bless America, the greatest nation in the world.”
The release, which was praised by the White House as a “gesture of goodwill”, appeared to signal an effort by Mr Kim to set a more favourable tone for the summit and followed his recent pledge to suspend missile tests and shut a North Korean nuclear bomb test site.
While Mr Kim is giving up the last of his American detainees, whom North Korea has often used as bargaining chips with the United States, their return could also be aimed at pressuring Mr Trump to make concessions of his own as he tries to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal, something it has not signalled a willingness to do.
The release gave Mr Trump a chance to tout a diplomatic achievement just a day after his decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal drew heavy criticism from European allies and others.
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“I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health,” Mr Trump wrote on Twitter.
“I appreciate Kim Jong-un doing this and allowing them to go,” Mr Trump told reporters at the White House.
Kim’s handover of the Americans was in response to an “official suggestion” from Mr Trump, the North Korean state news agency KCNA said in its account of the talks with Mr Pompeo.
It was their second encounter in less than six weeks to prepare the first-ever meeting between sitting US and North Korean leaders.
Mr Trump said agreement had been reached on a date and venue for the summit and details would be announced within three days.
He ruled out the heavily fortified demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, increasing the possibility the meeting could take place in Singapore, which he previously said was under consideration.