- Jim Bourg/Reuters
- President Donald Trump personally greeted the three US citizens who returned home after being held captive in North Korea.
- Their arrival follows weeks of speculation about their release, which was expected to be a key wild card in the ongoing negotiations surrounding a planned summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“It was nice letting them go before the meeting,” Trump said. “Frankly, we didn’t think this was going to happen, and it did.”
- Trump also offered his condolences to the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died shortly after his release from a North Korean prison.
President Donald Trump welcomed the arrival of the three Korean-Americans held captive in North Korea at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland early Thursday morning, following weeks of speculation about their release.
Authorities released the three detainees – Kim Dong-chul, Kim Sang-duk, and Kim Hak-song – after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in North Korea and met with leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday.
- Jim Bourg/Reuters
Walking out of their plane without assistance and onto the tarmac, the detainees appeared in good spirit and waved at a cheering crowd. On the ground, two firetrucks hoisted an enormous American flag, giving the impression of a major political victory for the US and Trump.
“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,” the statement continued.
Trump called the former detainees “incredible people” and said their release “was a very important thing to all of us.”
“This is a special night for these three, really great people,” Trump said as he shook their hand. “And congratulations on being in this country.”
“It was nice letting them go before the meeting,” Trump continued. “Frankly, we didn’t think this was going to happen, and it did.”
Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s state-run media outlet, said that Kim “accepted an official suggestion of the US president for the release” and granted “amnesty” to them.
The alleged crimes that landed them in custody in North Korea ranged from committing “hostile acts” to subvert the country and overthrow the government. Criminal charges in the North are typically exaggerated and disproportionate to the alleged offenses.
The three men were previously held in labor camps, with Kim Dong-chul being held captive the longest after his arrest in 2015.
“You should make care that they do not make the same mistakes again,” a North Korean official said to Pompeo. “This was a hard decision.”
Their return to US was a long time coming. Discussions between South and North Korean officials during the 2018 Winter Olympics earlier this year culminated in a historic summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un in April – the first such meeting between leaders of the North and South in more than a decade.
The mens’ release and Pompeo’s trip to North Korea, his second since April, are seen as the latest signs of warming relations on the Korean Peninsula, and a prelude to the upcoming US-North Korea summit. After months of missile launches from the North and chest-beating from the US last year, Trump and Kim began to soften their rhetoric after the Winter Olympics.
- Korea Summit Press Pool
“I appreciate Kim Jong Un doing this and allowing them to go,” Trump said to reporters after the release of the three captives.
Trump announced that the date and location of the US-North Korea summit had been set; however, did not reveal specifics other than that he ruled out the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as one of the options.
Still, the US president remains cautious: “Everything can be scuttled,” Trump said of his scheduled meeting with Kim.
“A lot of good things can happen, a lot of bad things can happen. I believe that we have – both sides want to negotiate a deal. I think it’s going to be a very successful deal.”
The release of the detainees may be a reason to celebrate, but it comes too late for some – in 2017, Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American student, died shortly after his release from a North Korean prison.
After serving a year of his 15-year prison sentence for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, Warmbier returned to the US in a comatose state. Unable to see and react to verbal commands, Warmbier succumbed to his condition and died.
Warmbier’s parents have since railed against the regime, despite it’s recent overtures of peace. Recently, the Warmbiers filed a wrongful death lawsuit against North Korea and alleged it tortured and killed Otto.
“I can’t let Otto die in vain,” Cindy Warmbier, Otto’s mother, said on Thursday. “We’re not special, but we’re Americans and we know what freedom’s like, and we have to stand up for this.”
Upon the arrival of the former prisoners, Trump offered his condolences to the Warmbier family: “I want to pay my warmest respects to the parents of Otto Warmbier, who is a great young man who really suffered.”