WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump celebrated the return Thursday of three Americans freed by North Korea and suggested their release heralded a potential breakthrough toward the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
With the former detainees by his side on a dark air base tarmac, Trump said during a made-for-TV ceremony that it was a “great honour” to welcome the men back to the U.S., but he added that “the true honour is going to be if we have a victory in getting rid of nuclear weapons.”
Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, other top officials and first lady Melania joined the president in the highly scripted celebration in the wee hours of Thursday morning at Joint Base Andrews near Washington. The men — Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim — had been released Wednesday amid a warming of relations between the longtime adversaries.
Trump thanked North Korean leader King Jon Un for releasing the Americans and said he believes Kim wants to reach an agreement on denuclearization at their upcoming summit. “I really think he wants to do something,” the president said.
Pence said Thursday the administration believes North Korea “has taken steps that indicate this may be an opportunity for a breakthrough” in relations with the U.S.
“In this moment the regime in North Korea has been dealing, as far as we can see, in good faith,” he told NBC News.
Singapore has emerged as the likely host of the U.S.-North Korean summit, late this month or in early June, as Trump presses his highest-stakes foreign policy effort yet.
Shortly before 3 a.m. the president and first lady boarded the medical plane on which the men had travelled and spent several minutes meeting with them privately. The group then emerged at top of the airplane stairway, where the men held up their arms in an exuberant display.
As the men entered into view, U.S. service members on the tarmac burst into applause and cheers.
“This is a special night for these three really great people,” Trump told reporters. On the U.S. relationship with North Korea, Trump declared, “We’re starting off on a new footing.”
The freed prisoners appeared tired but in excellent spirits, flashing peace signs and waving their arms as they emerged from the aircraft. When asked by reporters how it felt to be home, one of the men answered through a translator, “It’s like a dream; we are very, very happy.” They later gave the president a round of applause.
The White House carefully choreographed the event, suspending a giant American flag between two fire trucks on the tarmac and inviting reporters to witness the return. The image-conscious president told reporters, “I think you probably broke the all-time-in-history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Hours later, Trump tweeted, “On behalf of the American people, WELCOME HOME!”
The men were taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where they are to be evaluated and receive medical treatment before being reunited with their families.
The highly public display stood in stark contrast to the low-key and very private reception that the State Department had envisioned, in keeping with a tradition of trying to protect potentially traumatized victims from being thrust into the spotlight so soon after their ordeal.
Department officials took great pains on the prisoners’ release in North Korea, as well as on their flights to Japan and Alaska, to keep them sequestered not only from the two journalists travelling with Pompeo but also from staffers not immediately involved in their cases. The trio, along with medical personnel that included a psychiatrist, were cloistered in the middle of Pompeo’s plane in a small section of 12 business class-size seats that was cordoned off by curtains on both ends.
State Department officials refused to discuss anything but the most basic details of their conditions, citing privacy concerns in keeping with the minimal amount of information they had released since the men were imprisoned.
Pompeo had secured their release in Pyongyang after meeting with Kim on final plans for the Trump-Kim summit.
Shortly after they touched down in Alaska, the State Department released a statement from the freed men.
“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.”
Suggesting that recovery from their ordeals would take time, Pence recounted Thursday morning that Pompeo told him that at the refuelling stop in Anchorage, “one of the detainees asked to go outside the plane because he hadn’t seen daylight in a very long time.”
Trump entered office as an emboldened North Korea developed new generations of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental U.S. Those advances were the subject of President Barack Obama’s starkest warning shortly before Trump took office, and this is a crisis he’s convinced his negotiating skills can resolve.
Crediting himself for recent progress, Trump has pointed to Kim’s willingness to come to the negotiating table as validating U.S. moves to tighten sanctions — branded “maximum pressure” by the president.
Kim decided to grant amnesty to the three Americans at the “official suggestion” of the U.S. president, said North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA.
North Korea had accused the three Korean-Americans of anti-state activities. Their arrests were widely seen as politically motivated and had compounded the dire state of relations over the isolated nation’s nuclear weapons.
The last American to be released before this, college student Otto Warmbier, died in June 2017, days after he was repatriated to the U.S. with severe brain damage.
Warmbier was arrested by North Korean authorities in January 2016, accused of stealing a propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labour. His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit, accusing the government of torturing and killing their son.
“We are happy for the hostages and their families,” the Warmbiers said in a statement Wednesday. “We miss Otto.”
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey and Ken Thomas in Washington and Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang contributed to this report.
Matthew Lee, Jill Colvin And Zeke Miller, The Associated Press