Trump welcomes back Americans freed by North Korea

‘Special night for these three really great people,’ says US president

US president Donald Trump welcomed three former US prisoners who landed at a military base near Washington on Thursday after being released by North Korea, thanking leader Kim Jong-un and sounding upbeat on a planned summit between the two.

 

The final obstacle to a long-awaited summit between North Korea and the United States was lifted on Thursday as three American hostages landed safely on US soil.

Shortly after 2.45am local time, an aeroplane carrying secretary of state Mike Pompeo and three Americans who had been detained in North Korea landed at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland just outside Washington.

After entering the aircraft, which pulled up beside a giant American flag, President Donald Trump and his wife Melania re-emerged with the three detainees, Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong-chul – all Americans of Korean descent.

“It’s like a dream and we are very, very happy,” Kim Dong-chul said to the waiting media.

Standing alongside the freed men, Mr Trump said he wanted to thank North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who “really was excellent to these three incredible people”, adding it was a “special night for these three really great people”.

Asked if the release of the detainees was his proudest achievement, Mr Trump said that that that would be “when we denuclearise that entire [Korean] peninsula”.

“This is what people have been waiting for for a long time. Nobody thought we could be on this track in terms of speed,” he said.

The release of the men was “a great honour,” he said. “But the true honour is going to be if we have a victory in getting rid of nuclear weapons.”

The release of the three hostages followed intensive behind-the-scenes negotiations between the US and North Korea. While Mr Trump’s legal counsel Rudy Giuliani suggested last Thursday that the hostages would be released by the end of the day, negotiations continued throughout the weekend to secure their release.

Labour camps

Mr Pompeo flew to Pyongyang on Tuesday for a 13-hour visit, and met with Kim Jong-un for 90 minutes in the North Korean capital. He then flew with the men to a US military base in Japan, where they were transferred to another aircraft.

The three men had been held in labour camps in North Korea before their release. Two of the detainees were arrested and held on suspicion of “hostile acts” a year ago. The third, Kim Dong-chul, a South-Korean-born US citizen, was detained in 2015 on spying charges. In April 2016 he received a 10-year prison term with hard labour for “perpetrating state subversive plots and espionage against” North Korea.

Asked about how they had been treated, Kim Dong-chul said the three detainees had been treated in different ways. “For me, I had to do a lot of labour. But when I got sick, I was also treated by them.”

The three men were transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for further medical attention on Thursday night and were expected to be questioned by US intelligence agents before being allowed to return to their families.

Officials said initial examinations suggested the men were in good health. US student Otto Warmbier, the last American to be freed from North Korea, died last year shortly after returning to the United States. His parents are suing North Korea for his death. In a statement on Thursday, his parents Fred and Cindy Warmbier said they were “happy for the hostages and their families, but added: “We miss Otto.”