WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump greeted three Americans released by North Korea at an air base near Washington early today, 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 yesterday.
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." Remarking 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 labour in 2016.
The White House said 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.
A second plane, with more robust medical equipment, accompanied them. "All indications are at this point that their health is as good as could be given that they've been held," Pompeo told reporters travelling with him.
The trio later released a statement of thanks conveyed via the State Department.
"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." The family of Tony Kim also voiced gratitude to "all of those who have worked toward and contributed to his return home" -- and specifically thanking Trump for "engaging directly with North Korea."
Before the plane's arrival Trump described the men's release as "a gesture of goodwill." The White House said Trump spoke with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in yesterday about Pompeo's visit to North Korea, and that the two presidents welcomed the release of the Americans and "expressed hope for joyful family reunions."
Trump supporters declared their release an unbridled political victory, evidence, Vice President Mike Pence said, that "strong leadership and our America First policies are paying dividends." The development appears to pave the way for a much-anticipated summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim, scheduled to take place within weeks.
"It was absolutely imperative that the Trump Administration secure the release of the three Americans well before any summit," said Jean Lee, an analyst at the Wilson Centre.
In his first reported comments on the summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his sit down with Trump "would be a historic meeting" and an "excellent first step" according to state media.
Trump says a time, date and location have been decided for his historic summit with Kim, although US officials say there is still some fine-tuning to be done.
The most likely location appears to be neutral Singapore.
The president told reporters the administration would announce the details "within three days" but revealed it would not be at the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea.
"I think that Chairman Kim is trying to set good conditions for the summit. I think we are having good conversations, productive conversations," Pompeo said. "We're planning on it will be a single day, but in the event that there is more to discuss, there'll be an opportunity for it to extend into the second day as well."
The meeting will discuss North Korea's nuclear and ballistic weapons program, which may soon give Pyongyang the capability of striking the continental United States.