WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A plane carrying three U.S. prisoners released by North Korea landed near Washington D.C. on Thursday to be met by President Donald Trump, clearing a major obstacle to a planned summit between him and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The prisoners, freed after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the North Korean capital, landed at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, where a giant U.S. flag was suspended between ladders of two fire trucks on the edge of the taxiway.
The flight, which arrived at around 2:42 a.m. (0642 GMT), was also to be met by Vice President Mike Pence, White House national security adviser John Bolton and Trump’s wife, Melania.
A White House spokeswoman said the three men would be taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in nearby Maryland for further medical evaluation.
They are Korean-American missionary Kim Dong-chul, detained in 2015; Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim, who spent a month teaching at the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) before he was arrested in 2017; and Kim Hak-song, who also taught at PUST and was detained last year.
“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 as their plane stopped over in Alaska.
“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.”
North Korean state media said they were arrested either for subversion or “hostile acts” against the government.
Until now, the only American released by North Korea during Trump’s presidency was Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old university student who returned to the United States in a coma last summer after 17 months of captivity and died days later.
Warmbier’s death escalated U.S.-North Korea tensions, already running high at the time over Pyongyang’s stepped-up missile tests.
Americans detained in North Korea: tmsnrt.rs/2r5xYpB
The release of the last U.S. detainees in North Korea appeared to signal an effort by Kim to improve the tone for the summit and followed his recent pledge to suspend missile tests and shut a nuclear bomb test site.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Singapore has emerged as the likeliest location for the planned summit after Trump ruled out holding it at the heavily fortified demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Trump, who previously said Singapore was under consideration, said agreement had been reached on a date and venue and details would be announced within three days.
The release of the prisoners also gave Trump a chance to tout a diplomatic achievement soon after his decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal drew heavy criticism from European allies and others.
Korea: a land divided – tmsnrt.rs/2KfOFYQ
Additional reporting by Steve Holland in WASHINGTON; Haejin Choi and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Robert Birsel