Three Americans held as prisoners in North Korea arrived back in the United States early Thursday, less than a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo secured their release.
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump met Kim Hak-song, Kim Dong-chul and Tony Kim, shortly after 3 a.m. at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Vice President Mike Pence, second lady Karen Pence, Pompeo and more than 200 members of the press were also on hand to witness their return. However, no family members or friends were present because the men have to be debriefed first, an unnamed official told CNN.
“This is something that people did not think was going to happen for many many years and a lot of bad things could’ve happened in between,” Trump said. “This is a special night for these really great people.”
American officials had long fought for the trio’s release and were hoping to have the men returned home before Trump’s upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which is likely to take place in Singapore next month. Their release was not a precondition of the meeting, but was widely seen as a gesture of goodwill by the North ahead of negotiations.
The men were detained on various charges of espionage and “hostile acts,” although the North is notorious for issuing trumped up sentences to hold political prisoners. Despite their imprisonment, Trump said all were in good health and able to walk on their own.
“It’s like a dream and we are very, very happy,” said Kim Dong-chul, who left the plane with his hands in the air showing two peace signs. Through a translator, Kim said he did “a lot of labor” while imprisoned.
Shortly before their arrival, the three men released a statement thanking the Trump administration.
“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. 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.”
Trump said that he was “very honored” to help secure the release of the men and that the North Korean leader was “nice” to let them free before their summit. Trump also said he was optimistic that their upcoming talks would lead to improved relations between the countries.
“My proudest achievement will be ― this is a part of it ― will be when we denuclearize that entire peninsula. This is what people have been waiting for, for a long time,” Trump said. “We’re starting off on a new footing, this is a wonderful thing that he released the folks early. I think we have a very good chance of doing something meaningful, and if anybody would’ve said that five years ago ... even a year ago, you would’ve said that was impossible.”
Trump last week hinted that the men were likely to be released, urging the public to “stay tuned.”
“Nobody thought this was going to happen, and if it did, it would be years or decades, frankly,” Trump told reporters at the White House after Pompeo confirmed their release. “Nobody thought this was going to happen. And I appreciate Kim Jong Un for doing this and allowing them to go.”
Their release represented a significant diplomatic victory for his administration. Pompeo’s visit to Pyongyang this week was his second in recent days and meant to finalize a time and location for the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim. That meeting is likely to take place in Singapore next month.
The Korean Peninsula has been abuzz with diplomatic activity over the last month. Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April and spoke about plans to formally end the Korean War and denuclearize the region. The North Korean leader also traveled to China once again to meet with President Xi Jinping and signal that the two will likely be a package deal in any ongoing negotiations.