Three Americans held captive for more than a year in North Korea arrived at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington well before dawn Thursday to a hero’s welcome featuring President Trump, Vice President Pence and first lady Melania Trump.
Shortly before 3 a.m., in pitch black skies, a U.S. government plane made its approach to the runway with Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, having been preceded by a jet carrying Secretary of State Mike Pomeo. A large American flag suspended by two fire engine cranes was arranged on the tarmac, which was lit by banks of spotlights.
Their touchdown was the culmination of a whirlwind 20 hours since the three men were freed in a dramatic diplomatic moment that White House officials described as a “positive gesture of goodwill” from Kim Jong Un’s regime ahead of his planned summit with Trump.
Pompeo, who spent 13 hours in Pyongyang on Wednesday and met with Kim for 90 minutes, flew the men to a U.S. military base in Japan, where the three were transferred to another plane to ensure complete medical care. Officials have said initial exams showed them to be in relatively good health.
Trump’s decision to greet them in the middle of the night illustrated the political importance the president has attached to their release as a sign that his high-stakes diplomatic gambit with the North is paying dividends. But top administration officials, including Pence, reaffirmed Wednesday that the United States will maintain pressure on the North in pursuit of the goal of dismantling its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
The summit between Trump and Kim is expected to take place in mid- to late June, possibly in Singapore.
The president and his wife arrived at Andrews aboard Marine One shortly before 2:30 a.m. and they jonied Pence and his wife, Karen, who had arrived about 30 minutes earlier, in the airport hangar to await the arrival of Pompeo and the three Americans.
Dozens of reporters and television cameras were assembled to capture the triumphant moment as the White House opened the event to the press corps. The news of their release had led the evening news Wednesday on all three major broadcast networks.
On Wednesday, Trump told reporters that the return of the Americans would be “a very special time” and he took credit for his North Korea strategy helping facilitate their release.
“Nobody thought this was going to happen and, if it did, it would be years or decades,” he said. “Frankly, nobody thought this was going to happen and I appreciate Kim Jong Un doing this and allowing them to go.”
Although Trump has tried to cast the freeing of the Americans as an unprecedented feat, North Korea released two Americans to Obama administration officials in 2014. Two American journalists were released in 2009 to a U.S. delegation led by former president Bill Clinton.
The three Americans releaed Wednesday were scheduled to depart Andrews for Walter Reed medical center for further evaluation.
In a joint statement released by the State Department, they 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.”
One of the Americans, Kim Dong-chul, a former Virginia resident in his mid-60s, had been living in China and working in a special economic zone in the North 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 (PUST), and both were detained after Trump took office.
The men were accused of espionage and committing hostile acts against the North Korean government, charges the United States called baseless.
In a statement, PUST leaders thanked those who worked to facilitate the release of the prisoners and said they hoped their former co-workers “can now enjoy some peace and rest with their families and friends; and begin to rebuild normal life.”
No other Americans are known to be held in North Korea against their will. Japan has said the cases of at least 13 citizens abducted by the North in the 1970s and 1980s remain unresolved, and dozens of South Koreans are presumed to have been arrested, detained or abducted by the North over the years.