Trump welcomes back Americans freed by North Korea

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md, May 10 (Reuters) - A plane carrying three Americans released by North Korea landed at a military base near Washington early on Thursday to be welcomed by U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania.

North Korea released the three - Kim Dong-chul, Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim, and Kim Hak-song - and handed them over to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Pyongyang on Wednesday, clearing a major obstacle to an unprecedented summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Trump and First Lady Melania walked up the stairs to board the plane after it landed at Joint Base Andrews, a military base outside Washington DC, at around 2.40 a.m. (0640 GMT).

They emerged a few minutes later with the three former detainees to the cheers of watching military personnel. All three former prisoners smiled. Two lifted their arms above head with and made "V for victory" signs.

"Special night for these three really great people," Trump said.

“The fact that we were able to get them out so soon was really a tribute to a lot of people including a certain process that’s taking place right now.”

Referring to the possibility of reaching a denuclearization deal with North Korea, Trump said: "We will see if we can do something that people did not think was going to happen for many, many years and a lot of bad things could have happened in between."

"My proudest achievement will be - this is part of it - when we denuclearize that entire peninsula," he said, adding that he really believed the Kim Jong Un wanted to bring his country "into the real world."

"We very much appreciate that he allowed them to go before the meeting," he said. "It's a very important thing to all of us.

"I think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful," Trump said of the planned summit.

North Korean state media said the men, one of whom had been held since 2015 and the other two since last year, were arrested either for subversion or "hostile acts" against the government.

Until now, the only American released by North Korea during Trump’s presidency was Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old university student who returned to the United States in a coma last summer after 17 months of captivity and died days later.

Warmbier's death escalated U.S.-North Korea tensions, already running high at the time over Pyongyang's stepped-up missile tests.

Trump said he wanted to pay his "warmest respects" to Warmbier's parents. "He was a great young man who really suffered," Trump said. In a statement released by the State Department as the plane carrying them stopped over in Alaska, the three former detainees expressed "deep appreciation to the United States government, President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and the people of the United States for bringing us home.

"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."

The men were freed after Pompeo traveled to the North Korean capital to meet the North Korean leader for the second time in less than six weeks to prepare a first-ever meeting between sitting U.S. and North Korean leaders.

The fate of the three had been among a number of delicate issues in the run-up to the summit aimed at defusing a crisis over North Korea's development of nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States.

A North Korean official informed Pompeo that Kim had granted the three "amnesty," according to a senior U.S. official present for the exchange.

The men walked without assistance to the U.S. government plane that flew them out of Pyongyang and were in the air less than an hour after leaving custody. A White House spokeswoman said they would be taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in nearby Maryland for further medical evaluation.

The release was praised by the White House as a "gesture of goodwill" and appeared to signal an effort by Kim to set a more favorable mood for the summit. It followed his recent pledge to suspend missile tests and shut a nuclear bomb test site. (Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Jan Pytalski and Brendan O'Brien; Editing by Nick Macfie)