Pence lauds release of three Americans by N. Korea, predicts 'breakthrough' with Kim regime

Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday morning that watching three Americans who’d been freed from North Korean labor camps arrive back in the United States was an “incredibly powerful moment" — which he believes was the direct product of diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang applied by the Trump administration.

In an interview with NBC News' Andrea Mitchell aired on the "Today" show, Pence credited President Donald Trump with having “changed the policies of the United States from an era of strategic patience with North Korea, to move toward the kind of campaign that would bring economic and diplomatic pressure to bear while reserving all other options.”

Pence added that the time appeared right for a huge “breakthrough” in relations with North Korea.

“We do believe that the regime in North Korea has taken steps that indicate this may be an opportunity for a breakthrough, the kind of breakthrough that's eluded the United States and the world community for more than 20 years,” Pence said. “To see these three Americans come off the plane, we hope it is a sign that this is a real opportunity to achieve peace on the Korean peninsula,” he added.

Pence spoke just hours after Kim Hak-song, Kim Dong-chul and Kim Sang-duk, who is also known as Tony Kim, waved and smiled as they were greeted by Trump at a military base near Washington, D.C., early Thursday. The trio was granted amnesty by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after spending up to two years in detention accused of crimes against the regime.

The plane carrying the three men — all American citizens of Korean descent — touched down at at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland at 2:42 a.m. ET, more than 20 hours after they were handed over to U.S. officials at a hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea.

They were accompanied by newly-minted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had been visiting North Korea to finalize a place and time for historic face-to-face talks between Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Their release came ahead of a proposed meeting between Kim Jong Un and Trump that would follow punishing sanctions leveled against North Korea in response to its missile and nuclear tests.

Pence on Thursday reiterated Trump’s claim that a date and location were “set,” but wouldn’t reveal details.

Despite praise from Trump regarding the release of the trio, Pence said that the administration had “no illusions” about the fact that they were still dealing with a dictator.

Meanwhile, Pence also said that while his administration would “continue” to cooperate with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 race, he would prefer to see the probe come to an end —and soon.

“It’s been about a year since this investigation began. Our administration's provided over a million documents. We've fully cooperated in it. And in the interest of the country, I think it's time to wrap it up,” the vice president said. “ And I would very respectfully encourage the special counsel and his team to bring their work to completion.”