JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. — President Trump traveled to an Air Force base outside of Washington in the wee hours of Thursday morning to greet three Americans who were returning home after being released from prison in North Korea. In brief remarks to reporters on the tarmac, Trump suggested the release of the men showed his efforts to negotiate with the North Korean regime are working.
“The fact that we were able to get them out so soon is … really a tribute to a lot of things, including a certain process that is taking place right now. And that process is very important, so we will see what happens,” said Trump.
Standing with the returnees, Trump noted he is planning to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. On Wednesday, he said the time and place of that summit has been set and would be revealed publicly in “three days.”
News reports have named Singapore as the likely site for the meeting.
At the Air Force base, where the plane carrying the men landed at 2:42 a.m., Trump thanked Kim for releasing the men and said the North Korean leader “really was excellent” to them.
“We very much appreciate that he allowed them to go before the meeting. It was sort of understood that we’d be able to get these three terrific people during the meeting and bring them home after the meeting,” Trump said.
Trump said freeing the men, all Americans of Korean ancestry, was “a big thing, very important to me.” He said it indicated Kim might be interested in changing North Korea’s current status as an isolated pariah on the world stage.
“I really think he wants to do something. 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,” said Trump.
America has technically been at war with North Korea since 1950. Fighting in the Korean War stopped in 1953 with an armistice that led to a cease-fire, but the U.S. and its ally South Korea never signed a formal peace treaty with the north.
If the meeting happens, Trump would become the first sitting president to meet a North Korean leader. The negotiations for a potential summit came after Trump stepped up rhetoric against North Korea and infamously promised to rain “fire and fury” down on the country.
Trump touts his self-professed dealmaking ability as a major diplomatic weapon. He said he has developed a unique relationship with Kim.
“It’s never been taken this far. There’s never been a relationship like this,” said Trump.
The three men — Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song — were taken into custody between 2015 and 2017. Each was charged with a different crime. The North Korean regime has a history of giving foreigners harsh sentences, as they are seen as valuable potential bargaining chips.
Kim Dong-chul, who had been charged with espionage, spoke to reporters through a translator and described how it felt to be back in the U.S.
“It’s like a dream. We are very, very happy,” he said.
He was also asked about his treatment in North Korean custody.
“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,” he said.
The returnees’ arrival was turned into a dramatic press event by the White House, which brought reporters to the base and hung a massive American flag between two fire trucks as a backdrop for their arrival. Trump acknowledged this attention during his remarks.
“It’s very early in the morning. I think you probably broke the all-time in history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning. That I would say,” Trump said, adding, “I want to just congratulate — these are three great people — and congratulations.”
Speculation about the release of detainees had been swirling for a week. On May 2, Trump referred to the hostages in a tweet that falsely accused the Obama administration of failing to secure their release. Two of the three were arrested after President Barack Obama left office. Obama secured the release of 11 American hostages from North Korea during his presidency.
In a jovial mood, Trump used the word “great” at least six times during his remarks. He paid tribute to Otto Warmbier, an American student who had been arrested in North Korea for taking a poster as a souvenir and who died shortly after he was returned home after suffering mistreatment while in prison.
Trump also took a jab at one of his favorite media targets, the New York Times, for a report that noted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s absence as the president withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal caused concerns in some Washington circles.
“I think our secretary of state, despite the fact that the New York Times said he was missing, he was in North Korea,” Trump said. “But I think our secretary of state has done a fantastic job.”
Trump then turned to Pompeo and addressed him.
“Mike, did you know that you were missing? They couldn’t find you. They couldn’t find him because he was in North Korea,” said Trump.
Trump was upbeat throughout the event, which allowed him to celebrate a victory amid a continuing onslaught of headlines about his legal problems. However, his diplomacy had its limits. He repeatedly ignored questions about whether he’d be willing to “do the same thing” with Iran and pursue talks after exiting the nuclear deal.
Still, when it came to North Korea, Trump was brimming with optimism. Just before Trump left, Yahoo News asked if he might visit North Korea one day.
“It could happen,” Trump said.
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(Cover photo credit: Susan Walsh/AP)