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 Donald Trump, Vice President Mike 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 Pompeo. A large American flag suspended by two fire engine cranes was arranged on the tarmac, which was lit by banks of spotlights.
The plane carrying the three Americans pulled up in front of the giant flag. The president and first lady boarded the plane, while Pence, his wife, Karen, and Pompeo waited on the tarmac. Then Trump emerged followed by the three men, two of whom raised their arms in triumph and relief as they exited the plane.
The men, dressed in sports coats and slacks, with button-down shirts, walked down the staircase slowly but without assistance. And after the three shook hands with the other U.S. officials, Trump led the group toward the assembled media to make remarks.
“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.
“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 reporters that if felt “like a dream. We are very, very happy.” Asked how they were treated in North Korea, he 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 arrival of the men was the culmination of a whirlwind 20 hours since the three 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.
Asked if the release of the men changed how he plans to negotiate with Kim, Trump said: “No not at all. We very much appreciate he allowed them to go before the meeting.”
The summit between Trump and Kim is expected to take place in mid- to late June, possibly in Singapore, though the White House has not confirmed the details.
“We’re starting off on a new footing,” Trump said. “This is a wonderful thing that he released the folks early. That was a big thing, very important to me and I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful.”
To a question about Kim’s motivation, Trump said of the authoritarian 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.”
The president and his wife arrived at Andrews aboard Marine One shortly before 2:30 a.m. and they joined the Pences, 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.
Trump sought to credit his North Korea strategy for helping free the men. “This is what people have been waiting for for a long time. Nobody thought we could be on this track in terms of the speed,” he said. “So, I’m very honored to have helped the three folks.”
But the president insisted that “the true honor is going to be if we have a victory in getting rid of nuclear weapons.”
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 released 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, 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.
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.
Trump offered words of support to the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died several days after being released by North Korea in a coma after 17 months in captivity. The president called him a “great young man who really suffered” and offered his “warmest respects” to Warmbier’s parents, who Trump called his friends.
The president declined to answer a question about whether he has spoken with Kim Jong Un, and he did not rule out a visit to North Korea in the future.
“It could happen,” Trump said.
It was clear that Trump was basking in the glow of the moment and, ever mindful of production value, he couldn’t help but take credit for something else.
“It’s very early in the morning,” he told reporters. “I think you probably broke the all-time in history television rating for three o’clock in the morning. That I would say.”