President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greeted 3 Americans detained and now released by North Korea at Joint Base Andrews, calling it a “great honor.” He boarded their medical plane at around 3 AM EST to meet with them privately before the arrival ceremony.
The three, who had been held for periods ranging between one and two years, were released on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s second known visit to the country ahead of a historic meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong Un.
“Frankly we didn’t think it was going to happen and it did,” President Trump said after thanking Kim. “We’re starting off on a new footing. This is a wonderful thing that he released the folks early.”
Kim Dong Chul, a South Korea-born U.S. citizen and former Virginia resident, was sentenced in April 2016 to 10 years hard labor in prison after being convicted of espionage. He reportedly ran a trade and hotel service company in Rason, a special economic zone on North Korea’s border with Russia.
Tony Kim was detained at Pyongyang’s airport in April 2017. Pyongyang accused him of “hostile acts” against the communist regime. He taught accounting at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
Kim Hak Song, an ethnic Korean born in China, was also detained in May 2017 for “hostile acts.” He worked in agricultural development at an experimental farm run by the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which was founded in 2010 with donations from Christian groups.
“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,” the three said in a statement released by the State Department. “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.”
Mr. Pompeo, who was nominated by President Trump to replace Rex Tillerson, met with Kim during Easter weekend to gauge the potential for a summit with South Korea and the United States (US).
If the summit is held, it would be the first-ever between the U.S. and North Korea after more than six decades of hostility. The North and South remain in a technical state of war. The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
Kim announced last month that he has suspended Pyongyang’s nuclear testing program, including a freeze on intercontinental ballistic missile tests and closing a nuclear site. The extraordinary development came after North Korea announced they dropped demands for a freeze to U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises and the withdrawal of U.S. troops as preconditions for talks.
“I think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful,” President Trump added. “My proudest achievement will be – this is part of it – when we denuclearize that entire peninsula.”