Washington — Donald Trump personally welcomed home three Americans released from detention in North Korea, a triumphant middle-of-the-night moment for the president as he prepares for a landmark summit with Kim Jong-un.
The three men flew to Washington after they were released to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was dispatched to Pyongyang on Tuesday in the hope that Kim would agree to free the detainees.
Trump and his wife Melania boarded the former prisoners’ plane at Joint Base Andrews shortly before 3am on Thursday to greet the men.
The return of the prisoners — whom the US has called "hostages" — clears an obstacle to direct talks between Trump and Kim.
Trump said on Wednesday that he expected to announce a date and location for the summit within days and that he had ruled out the Korea Peninsula’s Demilitarised Zone. An administration official later said he was leaning towards Singapore.
"We have a really good shot at making it successful," Trump said on Wednesday.
The US aims to persuade Kim to give up his country’s nuclear arsenal.
The former detainees are all Korean-American men who share the common surname Kim but are not related. They were handed over to Pompeo during his second trip to Pyongyang this year, a visit that was not announced before Trump himself disclosed it on Tuesday, when the secretary of state was already in the air.
"We would like to express our deep appreciation to the US government, President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and the people of the US for bringing us home," the detainees said in a statement as they flew to Washington.
"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."
Kim Dong-chul was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour in 2016 on charges he conducted espionage for South Korea. South Korea’s intelligence agency denied any ties to the man.
Kim Hak-song was detained last year for what North Korean media described as "hostile acts" against the country.
Kim Sang-dok, also known as Tony Kim, was intercepted in April 2017 at Pyongyang International Airport after being invited to teach accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
The homecoming event was broadcast live on cable news networks, and the men were greeted by a large American flag strung between two fire trucks parked on the tarmac.
Pompeo was informed after a meeting with Kim Jong-un on Wednesday that the men had been granted "amnesty". They were brought to the airport and left North Korea on Pompeo’s plane at 8.42pm local time on Wednesday. The secretary of state and the detainees arrived at Joint Base Andrews on Thursday on separate planes.
US Vice-President Mike Pence, who joined Trump at the homecoming, said on Wednesday that all three men "seem to be in good health" and were glad to be heading home. Pence also spoke on Wednesday with the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who had been detained in North Korea for trying to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel. Warmbier died shortly after being returned home from North Korea in a coma last year.
After meeting Trump and Pence, the former detainees were to travel to Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, for evaluation and any treatment, deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters told reporters.