Trump welcomes Americans freed by North Korea back to the US

by Andrew BEATTY
1 / 5

US President Donald Trump personally welcomed three American detainees who were released by North Korea as they arrived at an airbase near Washington

US President Donald Trump personally welcomed three American detainees who were released by North Korea as they arrived at an airbase near Washington

US President Donald Trump greeted three Americans released by North Korea at an air base near Washington early Thursday, underscoring a much needed diplomatic win and a stepping stone to a historic summit with Kim Jong Un.

Trump and first lady Melania made the short helicopter ride from the White House to Joint Base Andrews to personally welcome Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong-chul back to the United States, after their release from North Korea on Wednesday.

The president and his wife strode up the steps into the blue and white plane to greet them privately before coming out before TV cameras in the middle of the night.

Trump praised Kim Jong Un for freeing the Americans ahead of a planned summit between the US and North Korean leaders, scheduled to take place within weeks.

One of the former prisoners waved his arms from atop the steps, and another while down on the tarmac.

"It was understood that we would be able to get these three terrific people during the meeting and bring them home after the meeting," Trump said. "He was nice in letting them go before the meeting. Frankly, we didn't think this was going to happen. And it did."

Remarking on the sudden shift in US relations with North Korea, Trump said: "We're starting off on a new footing... he released the folks early. It's a big thing. Very important to me.

"And I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful and if anybody would have said that five years ago, 10 years ago -- even a year ago -- you would have said that's not possible."

He added: "A lot of very good things have happened."

- Freed American speaks -

The North Korean regime granted the three men "amnesty," a US official said, removing a major point of friction between Washington and Pyongyang and a potential obstacle to talks between the Cold War foes.

The men flew home with the new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A large US flag was strung over the tarmac.

Two of the men, agricultural expert Kim Hak-song and former professor Tony Kim, were arrested in 2017, while Kim Dong-chul, a South Korea-born American businessman and pastor in his 60s, was sentenced to 10 years' hard labor in 2016.

On their arrival, a reporter asked the men how they were treated in North Korea. Kim Dong-chul spoke up, and through a translator said: "Yes, we were treated in many different ways. For me, I had to do a lot of labor. But when I got sick, I was also treated by them."

The White House said all three men were able to walk unassisted onto the US Air Force plane that carried them and the Secretary of State out of North Korea.

A second plane, with more robust medical equipment, accompanied them.

"All indications are at this point that their health is as good as could be given that they've been held," Pompeo told reporters.

The trio also released a statement of thanks via the State Department.

"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," they said.

"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 family of Tony Kim also voiced gratitude to "all of those who have worked toward and contributed to his return home" -- and specifically thanked Trump for "engaging directly with North Korea."

- Game on -

Before the plane's arrival Trump described the men's release as "a gesture of goodwill."

The White House said Trump spoke with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in on Wednesday about Pompeo's visit to North Korea, and that the two presidents welcomed the release of the Americans and "expressed hope for joyful family reunions."

Trump supporters declared the release an unbridled political victory, evidence, Vice President Mike Pence said, that "strong leadership and our America First policies are paying dividends."

The development appears to pave the way for the much-anticipated summit between the two leaders.

"It was absolutely imperative that the Trump Administration secure the release of the three Americans well before any summit," said Jean Lee, an analyst at the Wilson Center.

In his first reported comments on the summit, Kim said his sit down with Trump "would be a historic meeting" and an "excellent first step" according to state media.

- Summit details to follow -

Trump says a time, date and location have been decided for his historic summit, although US officials say there is still some fine-tuning to be done.

The most likely location appears to be neutral Singapore.

The president told reporters the administration would announce the details "within three days", but revealed it would not be at the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea.

"I think that Chairman Kim is trying to set good conditions for the summit. I think we are having good conversations, productive conversations," Pompeo said.

"We're planning on it will be a single day, but in the event that there is more to discuss, there'll be an opportunity for it to extend into the second day as well."

The meeting will discuss North Korea's nuclear and ballistic weapons program, which may soon give Pyongyang the capability of striking the continental United States.

Since coming to office Trump has embarked on a campaign of "maximum pressure" on the North Korean regime.

A series of provocative North Korean missile tests have been met with US sanctions and a tougher Chinese stance on cross border trade.

Officials in Washington believe the measures have prompted fuel shortages in North Korea and increased tension inside the regime.

North Korea official Kim Yong Chul, who met Pompeo in Pyongyang, insisted the country's openness to talks was "not the result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside," but a change in regime focus.

"We have perfectedour nuclear capability. It is our policy to concentrate all efforts into economic progress in country," he said.

US President Donald Trump personally welcomed three American detainees who were released by North Korea as they arrived at an airbase near Washington

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with former detainee Tony Kim as US Vice President Mike Pence and Melania Trump look on at Joint Base Andrews

US citizens freed by North Korea

Donald Trump praised Kim Jong Un repeatedly for freeing the Americans, ahead of a planned summit between the two men

Kim Dong-chul, a South�Korea-born American businessman, is one of three US citizens who were detained in North Korea