President Donald Trump welcomed home three Americans who had been detained for years by North Korea in the wee hours of Thursday morning, saying it was a "great honor" but stipulating the true achievement would be to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
Tony Kim, Kim Hak Song, and Kim Dong Chul were freed by the North Koreans ahead of a summit between Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un over the nation's rogue nuclear program. It's a remarkable diplomatic development given the tensions between the two leaders throughout 2017, when they traded belligerent threats.
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew home with them, and Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, along with First Lady Melanie Trump and Second Lady Karen Pence, greeted the former detainees at Joint Base Andrews a little before 3 a.m. local time. The men emerged from their plane with the First and Second couples to applause and cheers.
"Hopefully everything is going to work out at the highest level," Trump said. "We want to thank Kim Jong Un who really was excellent to these three incredible people. They are really three incredible people and the fact that we were able to get them out so soon was really a tribute to a lot of things, including a certain process that is taking place right now."
Trump said the location was set for his meeting with Kim. Trump has stated the goal of the talks is for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Speaking through a translator, Kim Dong Chul, who was detained in October 2015, said it was "like a dream" to be back in the United States. He also said he was forced to do labor by the North Koreans but also received medical treatment when ill. Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song were imprisoned after Trump took office.
Trump said his "proudest achievement" would be when the peninsula was denuclearized when asked about bringing home the prisoners.
"It's a great honor, but the true honor is going to be if we have a victory in getting rid of nuclear weapons," he said.
"We're starting off on a new footing. This is a wonderful thing that he released the folks early … Very important to me," Trump added. "I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful."
Trump quipped to the assembled media they had set ratings records for the middle of the night.
He also paid tribute to Otto Warmbier, the former University of Virginia student imprisoned by North Korea for more than a year after being arrested in 2016. He was repatriated to the U.S. with severe brain damage in June and died shortly after returning.
"I want to pay my warmest respects to the parents of Otto Warmbier, who is a great young man who really suffered," Trump said.