Hours before dawn on Thursday morning, under pitch-black skies, three Americans who have been held captive by the North Korean regime for over a year arrived safely at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington. The three were privy to a “hero’s welcome” as they were accompanied by President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and First Lady Melania Trump.
The arrival of Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim, and Kim Hak-song came after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been in Pyongyang for the past day or so negotiating their release.
The plane taxied in front of a huge American flag suspended by two fire engine cranes on the taramc, which was lit by a group of spotlights. Donning sport coats, button-down dress shirts, and slacks, the three former detainees descended the staircase, following President Trump and his wife, who greeted them on the plane.
After the three shook hands and greeted the Vice President, his wife Karen, and other U.S. officials, they were led by the president towards an assembled group of reporters to make their remarks after finally being released.
“We want to thank Kim Jong Un, who was really excellent…The fact we were able to get them out so soon was a tribute to a lot of things including a certain process that is taking place right now,” Trump said in a report from The Washington Post.
“This is a special night for these three really great people,” he added, “and congratulations on being in this country.”
Speaking through an interpreter, Kim Dong-chul told the packed crowd of media that the situation was “like a dream,” adding, “We are very, very happy.”
When he was asked about how he was treated by the North Korean regime, Kim replied, “We were treated in many different ways. Me, I had to do a lot of labor, but when I got sick, I was also treated by them.”
The release of the prisoners is described as a “positive gesture of goodwill,” according to commentary from the White House. It also comes as monumental work as been made to bring President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to the negotiating table.
Pompeo spent 13 hours in Pyongyang on Wednesday, meeting with Kim for 90 minutes. Afterwards, he and the three men were flown to a U.S. military base in Japan, where the former captives were transferred to another plane to ensure complete medical care. According to the report, officials have said initial exams showed them to be in relatively good health.
Although the release of the prisoners is a sign of goodwill on part of Kim’s government, Vice President Pence and other Trump Administration officials have reaffirmed that the U.S. will maintain diplomatic pressure on the nation in pursuit of dismantling its nuclear capabilities and ballistic missile programs.
When asked if the release would change the future summit with Kim, Trump said, “No, not at all. We very much appreciate he allowed them to go before the meeting.”
Questioned about Kim’s motivation, Trump said of the North Korean leader, “I think he did this because I really think he wants to do something and bring that country into the real world. I really believe that.”
Though, he did affirm that, “the true honor is going to be if we have a victory in getting rid of nuclear weapons.”
Kim Dong-chul, in his 60s and former resident of Virginia, was living in China and working in a special economic zone in the North Korea for a hotel services company when was detained in October 2015.
Tony Kim, 59, an accountant, and Kim Hak-song, an agricultural consultant, were affiliated with Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and both were detained after President Trump took office last year.
All three were accused of espionage and committing hostile acts against the North Korean government. The U.S. has long said there is no base for the charges.
In a joint release from the State Department, the men said:
“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. 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.”
No other Americans are said to be held in North Korea at this time.
The Trump-Kim summit is expected to take place early summer, possibly in mid to late June. Furthermore, there has been talk that the meeting will take place on the de facto border, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), between the two Koreas, possibly where Kim met South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Panmunjom.
Some also claim the summit will be held in Singapore. The White House is yet to confirm an official plan.