President Trump greeted three American prisoners freed by North Korea Thursday morning, marking a significant diplomatic milestone between the longtime adversaries.
The freed prisoners, Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, were escorted back to the U.S. by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, arriving at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington at 2:42 a.m. Thursday.
Shortly after, Trump and First Lady Melania Trump boarded the plane to meet the Americans before accompanying them to the tarmac.
“The fact we were able to get them out so soon was a tribute to a lot of things,” Trump said to a crowd of journalists. “I just want to say, this is a special night.”
“I’m very honored to have helped these great folks, but the true honor is going to be if we have a victory in getting rid of nuclear weapons,” he added, alluding to a planned meeting between the U.S. and North Korea. “We have a meeting scheduled in a very short period of time. We have the location set. We’ll see if we can do something that people did not think was going to happen for many, many years.”
He went on to thank North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for freeing the American hostages, though, when asked if he had spoken to Kim, Trump replied, “I don’t want to comment.”
The president announced the detainees’ much-anticipated release via Twitter on Wednesday morning, saying, “I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting.”
The release, largely seen as a goodwill gesture by Kim, could pave the way for a new era of U.S.-North Korea relations after heightened tensions last year saw Trump and Kim threaten each other with nuclear strikes.
The U.S. had long demanded the Korean-American citizens’ release. Held on charges of espionage or other “hostile acts” against North Korea, two of the men were taken captive last year, while Kim Dong-chul has been detained since 2015. No other Americans are believed to be imprisoned in North Korea.
Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song were taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for medical examinations after their meeting with the president and Vice President Pence.
Trump tweeted Wednesday morning that they appeared to be “in good health.” Still, U.S. officials are likely cautious after the last American to be released from North Korean custody, Otto Warmbier, died shortly upon his return to the U.S.
Warmbier’s family is suing North Korea, saying their son, who suffered from severe brain damage, was “brutally tortured and murdered” by the country.
The Americans’ release came during Pompeo’s second visit to North Korea this year. Then CIA-director Pompeo secretly visited the country last month to prepare for a high-stakes summit between Trump and Kim aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
In his latest trip, The New York Times reported, Pompeo secured the Americans’ freedom Wednesday after ensuring stronger ties with North Korea in exchange for the country’s promise to desert its nuclear weapons program.
“For decades, we have been adversaries,” Pompeo said during a lunch hosted by the North Koreans. “Now we are hopeful that we can work together to resolve this conflict, take away threats to the world and make your country have all the opportunities your people so richly deserve.”
Alongside the detainees, Trump told reporters from the tarmac of Joint Base Andrews that his “proudest achievement will be when we denuclearize that entire [Korean] peninsula.”
Trump is expected to meet with Kim for the first time in Singapore, though the White House has yet to reveal further details and officials cautioned that Trump may not yet have given his final approval.
“I can tell you that a date and location are set, but, beyond that, I don’t have any other announcements at this point,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday, adding she expects an announcement in “the next few days.”
The meeting could take place in late May or early June.