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 for freeing the Americans ahead of the planned summit between the two leaders.
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.”
Speaking on the sudden shift in US relations with North Korea and the upcoming summit, 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.”
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.
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.
AFP quoted the White House as saying that all three men were able to walk unassisted onto a US Air Force plane that carried them and the Secretary of State out of North Korea.