Washington: Three Korean-Americans who were detained in North Korea for more than a year were greeted by President Donald Trump beneath a giant American flag after they returned to the mainland US on Thursday.
Despite a middle-of-the-night landing, first lady Melania Trump and a host of senior administration officials joined Trump to celebrate the occasion. The president and first lady boarded the medical plane on which the men travelled to take a private moment with them.
The men, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim, were released Wednesday amid a warming of relations between the longtime adversaries.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo secured their release in Pyongyang after meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on final plans for a Trump-Kim summit. The Americans had boarded Pompeo's plane out of North Korea without assistance and then transferred in Japan to a Boeing C-40 outfitted with medical facilities for the trip back to the US.
According to the White House, the three men would be transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for evaluation and medical treatment. Their families were not on hand for the ceremony.
Shortly after they touched down on American soil in Alaska for a refueling stop Wednesday afternoon 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."
Singapore has emerged as the likely summit site, late this month or in early June, as Trump seeks to negotiate denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in his highest-stakes foreign policy effort yet. Trump announced Wednesday that the demilitarized zone between the Koreas would not host the summit. Pompeo said the meeting would last one day and possibly a second.
Trump made a point of publicly thanking North Korea's leader for the prisoners' release "I appreciate Kim Jong Un doing this" and hailed it as a sign of cooling tensions and growing opportunity on the Korean peninsula. Kim decided to grant amnesty to the three Americans at the "official suggestion" of the US 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.
Trump entered office as an emboldened North Korea developed new generations of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental US.
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 US moves to tighten sanctions branded "maximum pressure" by the president.
The wee-hours ceremony Thursday was to be an early celebration for an issue that has already put the prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize on Trump's mind.
"Everyone thinks so, but I would never say it," he said Wednesday when asked if the award was deserved.
The release capped a dramatic day of diplomacy in Pyongyang. After Pompeo's 90-minute meeting with Kim Jong Un, he gave reporters a fingers-crossed sign when asked about the prisoners as he returned to his hotel. It was only after a North Korean emissary arrived a bit later to inform him that the release was confirmed.
The three had been held for periods ranging from one to two years. They were the latest in a series of Americans who have been detained by North Korea in recent years for seemingly small offences and typically freed when senior US officials or statesmen personally visited to bail them out.
The highly public and politically tinged arrival ceremony for the former prisoners organized by the White House was in stark contrast to the low-key and very private reception that the State Department had envisioned and carried out from the moment they took custody of them.
Department officials took great pains on their release in North Korea, as well as on their flights to Japan and Alaska, to keep them sequestered not only from the two journalists traveling with Pompeo but also from staffers not immediately involved in their cases. The trio, along with medical personnel, including a psychiatrist, were cloistered in the middle of Pompeo's plane in a small section of 12 business class-sized 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.
The fact that Trump was going to Andrews to welcome them home in person was almost an afterthought to Pompeo, who, when briefing reporters on their release, noted it last of all....