President Donald Trump welcomed home three US citizens freed by North Korea, scoring a major diplomatic victory ahead of his highly-anticipated meeting with Kim Jong Un.
Kim Hak Song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong Chul smiled and flashed peace signs as they emerged from a military plane in the early hours of Thursday at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington.
“This is a special night for these three really great people. Congratulations on being in this country,” Trump said as he stood alongside the former captives.
The three men, who Trump said are in good health, left Pyongyang 20 hours earlier after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo secured their release.
Before being transported to a military hospital for further medical evaluation, one of the newly released detainees spoke of his time in North Korea.
“We were treated in many different ways, for me I had to do a lot of labour but when I got sick I was also treated by them,” said Kim Dong Chul through an interpreter. He had been held since October 2015 on espionage charges and sentenced to 10 years hard labour.
Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim were arrested last year. They worked for Pyongyang University of Science Technology, a private institution that receives funding from the West, US media reported.
Trump, who on Wednesday called their release a “positive gesture of goodwill,” touched on his upcoming summit with the North Korea leader during a brief question-and-answer session with the press.
He said there would be news on the meeting “very soon” but refused to confirm reports that Singapore had been chosen as the venue.
“Our proudest achievement will be when we denuclearize that entire peninsula,” he said.
“I really think he wants to do something and bring the country into the real world,” Trump said of Kim.
“We’ll see what happens,” he added.
Pompeo flew Tuesday to Pyongyang to finalize the day, venue and other details of the Trump-Kim meeting.
Ahead of his arrival in the North Korean capital, Pompeo said he hoped the visit – which followed his secret trip to Pyongyang around April 1 – would “put in place a framework for a successful summit between the two presidents.”
In his middle-of-the-night remarks at Joint Base Andrews, the president also brought up the case of US student Otto Warmbier.
Warmbier was detained, convicted and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for crimes against North Korea. Warmbier was sent back to the US in June in a coma and died days later.
“I want to pay my warmest respects to the parents of Otto Warmbier, who was a great young man who really suffered,” said Trump, who added that he had recently spoken to them on the phone.
The Warmbier case heightened tensions between Trump and North Korea, as the US was tightening sanctions amid a series of nuclear tests and missile launches by Pyongyang. His parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit last month against the country.