Trump Welcomes U.S. Prisoners Released by N. Korea

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md (Reuters) -
President Donald Trump (L) greets the Americans released from detention in North Korea upon their arrival. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

President Donald Trump welcomed three former U.S. prisoners who landed at a military base near Washington on Thursday after being released by North Korea. He thanked leader Kim Jong Un and sounded upbeat on a planned summit between them.

The prisoners, freed after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the North Korean capital, landed at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, where a giant U.S. flag was suspended between ladders of two fire trucks on the edge of the taxiway.

Trump and his wife boarded the plane, which arrived at around 2:40 a.m., for several minutes before the men stepped out, shaking hands with the president and waving to waiting media and military personnel.

“Frankly, we didn’t think it was going to happen, and it did,” Trump said.

Trump said he really believed Kim wanted to bring North Korea “into the real world” and was hopeful of a major breakthrough at their planned meeting.

Details of the summit have yet to be announced, but one U.S. official said Singapore had emerged as the most likely venue.

A White House spokeswoman said the three men would be taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in nearby Maryland for further medical evaluation.

The three are Korean-American missionary Kim Dong-chul, detained in 2015; Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim, who spent a month teaching at the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) before he was arrested in 2017; and Kim Hak-song, who also taught at PUST and was detained last year.

North Korean state media said they were arrested either for subversion or “hostile acts” against the government.

Until now, the only American released by North Korea during Trump’s presidency was Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old university student who returned to the United States in a coma last summer after 17 months of captivity and died days later. Warmbier’s death escalated U.S.-North Korea tensions, already running high at the time over Pyongyang’s stepped-up missile tests.

The release of the last U.S. detainees in North Korea appeared to signal an effort by Kim to improve the tone for the summit and followed his recent pledge to suspend missile tests and shut a nuclear bomb test site.

There was no sign that Pompeo’s visit had cleared up the question of whether North Korea would be willing to bargain away nuclear missiles that might threaten the United States.

Trump has credited his “maximum pressure” campaign for drawing North Korea to the table, and has vowed to keep sanctions in place until Pyongyang takes concrete steps to denuclearize.