President Donald Trump, with first lady Melania Trump, leaves the White House in Washington, early Thursday, May 10, 2018, to greet three freed Americans detained in North Korea for over a year, who are arriving at Joint Base Andrews, Md. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Trump gives freed Americans flag-waving, wee-hours welcome

President Donald Trump met with three freed Americans detained in North Korea for over a year

Staging a made-for-TV, still-of-the-night arrival ceremony, President Donald Trump welcomed home three Americans freed by North Korea and declared their release a sign of promise toward his goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Speaking early Thursday on an air base tarmac with the former detainees by his side, Trump called it a “great honour” to welcome the men to the U.S., but said “the true honour is going to be if we have a victory in getting rid of nuclear weapons.”

Trump also thanked North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for releasing the Americans and said he believes Kim wants to reach an agreement on denuclearization at their upcoming summit. “I really think he wants to do something,” the president said.

First lady Melania Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top officials joined Trump to celebrate the occasion at Joint Base Andrews near Washington. The men — Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim — had been released Wednesday amid a warming of relations between the longtime adversaries.

Shortly before 3 a.m. the president and first lady boarded the medical plane on which the men had travelled and spent several minutes meeting with them privately. The group then emerged at top of the airplane stairway, where the men held up their arms in an exuberant display.

As the men entered into view, U.S. service members on the tarmac burst into applause and cheers.

“This is a special night for these three really great people,” Trump told reporters. On the U.S. relationship with North Korea, Trump declared, “We’re starting off on a new footing.”

The freed prisoners appeared tired but in excellent spirits, flashing peace signs and waving their arms as they emerged from the aircraft. When asked by reporters how it felt to be home, one of the men answered through a translator, “It’s like a dream; we are very, very happy.” They later gave the president a round of applause.

After Trump’s remarks, the three men boarded a bus for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where they are to be evaluated and receive medical treatment before being reunited with their families.

The White House carefully choreographed the event, hoisting a giant American flag between two fire trucks on the tarmac and inviting reporters to witness the return.

The image-conscious president told reporters, “I think you probably broke the all-time-in-history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning.”

Hours later, Trump tweeted, “On behalf of the American people, WELCOME HOME!”

The highly public and politically tinged display stood in stark contrast to the low-key and very private reception that the State Department had envisioned and carried out from the moment it took custody of the men, in keeping with a tradition of trying to protect potentially traumatized victims from being thrust into the spotlight so soon after their ordeal.

Department officials took great pains on the prisoners’ release in North Korea, as well as on their flights to Japan and Alaska, to keep them sequestered not only from the two journalists travelling with Pompeo but also from staffers not immediately involved in their cases. The trio, along with medical personnel that included a psychiatrist, were cloistered in the middle of Pompeo’s plane in a small section of 12 business class-size seats that was cordoned off by curtains on both ends.

State Department officials refused to discuss anything but the most basic details of their conditions, citing privacy concerns in keeping with the minimal amount of information they had released since the men were imprisoned.

Pompeo had secured their release in Pyongyang after meeting with Kim on final plans for the Trump-Kim summit. The Americans had boarded Pompeo’s plane out of North Korea without assistance and then transferred in Japan to the Boeing C-40 outfitted with medical facilities for the trip back to the U.S.

Shortly after they touched down on American soil in Alaska for a refuelling stop Wednesday afternoon, the State Department released a statement from the freed men.

“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,” they said. “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.”

Related: Trump: North Korea summit plans set; drawdown not on table

Related: Korean leaders pledge denuclearization in historic meeting

Singapore has emerged as the likely host of the U.S.-North Korean summit, late this month or in early June, as Trump seeks to negotiate denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in his highest-stakes foreign policy effort yet.

Trump made a point of publicly thanking North Korea’s leader for the prisoners’ release — “We want to thank Kim Jong Un” — and hailed it as a sign of cooling tensions and growing opportunity on the Korean peninsula. Kim decided to grant amnesty to the three Americans at the “official suggestion” of the U.S. president, said North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA.

North Korea had accused the three Korean-Americans of anti-state activities. Their arrests were widely seen as politically motivated and had compounded the dire state of relations over the isolated nation’s nuclear weapons.

Trump entered office as an emboldened North Korea developed new generations of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental U.S. Those advances were the subject of President Barack Obama’s starkest warning shortly before Trump took office, and this is a crisis he’s convinced his negotiating skills can resolve.

Crediting himself for recent progress, Trump has pointed to Kim’s willingness to come to the negotiating table as validating U.S. moves to tighten sanctions — branded “maximum pressure” by the president.

The three were the latest in a series of Americans who have been detained by North Korea in recent years for seemingly small offences and typically freed when senior U.S. officials or statesmen personally visited to bail them out.

The last American to be released before this, college student Otto Warmbier, died in June 2017, days after he was repatriated to the U.S. with severe brain damage.

Warmbier was arrested by North Korean authorities in January 2016, accused of stealing a propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labour. His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit, accusing the government of torturing and killing their son.

“We are happy for the hostages and their families,” the Warmbiers said in a statement Wednesday. “We miss Otto.”

After the release of the detainees Thursday, North Korea’s state-run media explicitly mentioned plans for the summit for the first time Thursday. Pyongyang has been exceptionally cautious about its public framing of Kim’s recent diplomatic moves, which are a major shift from the more aggressive focus on missile launches and nuclear development that heated tensions to a boil last year.

Related: Trump’s pull out from Iran deal deepens US isolation

___

Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey and Ken Thomas in Washington and Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang contributed to this report.

Matthew Lee, Jill Colvin And Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Take-home naloxone may be replacing 911 calls in Fraser Health area

Naloxone kits handed out up 29% over 2017, ambulance calls and emergency visits down 22-24%, deaths hold steady

Pilots open exhibition schedule

Abbotsford hosts Mission on Friday night

Flavelle to run for council

Frequent Abbotsford council observer seeking his own seat

GOLD: A brand-new socially conscious piece of theatre

Burlesque-theatre show, part of The Goddess Movement, comes to Abbotsford

Longtime pals release game backed by Kickstarter campaign

Zebulon: Galactic Control created by Abbotsford pair

Happy birthday Boler: An anniversary gathering of the cutest campers in Winnipeg

Hundreds of the unique trailers in Winnipeg to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Manitoba invention

Reported home invasion led to seven arrests in Maple Ridge

Port Coquitlam home invasion suspects tracked to Albion neighbourhood

Tim Hortons says its China expansion will include menu with congee, matcha

Coffee chain plans to open 1,500 stores in Asia over the next decade

How to help B.C. wildfire victims

Donations being taken by many organizations, BC Hydro waiving bills

5 to start your day

Mt. Hicks fire near Agassiz 15% contained, man dead in Surrey motorcycle incident and more

Two 23-year-old men die in separate Surrey motorcycle crashes in three days

One man died Thursday night after his motorcycle crashed on Highway 10, and another man died following a Tuesday crash

Whole city of Kimberley on an evacuation alert due to wildfires

Residents woke up Friday morning being told to get ready to leave any moment

Feds to allow charities to engage in political, but not partisan, activity

The plan is to allow charities to pursue political activities

Trump suggests Canada has been sidelined from latest NAFTA negotiations

Canadian officials have insisted they’re unfazed by being left out of the discussions

Most Read