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.”

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Trump welcomes home 3 US prisoners freed by North Korea
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Trump welcomes home 3 US prisoners freed by North Korea
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - MAY 10: U.S. President Donald Trump applauds the three Americans just released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim at Joint Base Andrews on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea and returned with the three men who have been detained in North Korea. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - MAY 10: President Donald Trump greets the three Americans just released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim, on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea and returned with the three men who had been detained for up to two years. The three U.S. citizens have been released as a goodwill gesture ahead of a planned summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - MAY 10: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R), greets three Americans just released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim, as President Donald Trump stands nearby, at Joint Base Andrews on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea and returned with the three men who had been detained for up to two years. The three U.S. citizens have been released as a goodwill gesture ahead of a planned summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - MAY 10: U.S. President Donald Trump walks with the three Americans just released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim at Joint Base Andrews on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea and returned with the three men who had been detained for up to two years. The three U.S. citizens have been released as a goodwill gesture ahead of a planned summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un.(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images). (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - MAY 10: U.S. President Donald Trump walks with the three Americans just released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim at Joint Base Andrews on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea and returned with the three men who have been detained in North Korea. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - MAY 10: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks while standing with the three Americans just released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stands nearby, at Joint Base Andrews on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea and returned with the three men who had been detained for up to two years. The three U.S. citizens have been released as a goodwill gesture ahead of a planned summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un.(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images). (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - MAY 10: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stands with two Americans just released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim at Joint Base Andrews on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea and returned with the three men who had been detained for up to two years. The three U.S. citizens have been released as a goodwill gesture ahead of a planned summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un.(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (L) applauds as US detainee Kim Dong-chul (2nd R) gestures upon his return with Kim Hak-song (behind) and Tony Kim (2nd L) after they were released by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10, 2018. - US President Donald Trump greeted the three US citizens released by North Korea at the air base near Washington early on May 10, underscoring a much needed diplomatic win and a stepping stone to a historic summit with Kim Jong Un. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - MAY 10: U.S. President Donald Trump applauds the three Americans just released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim at Joint Base Andrews on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea and returned with the three men who have been detained in North Korea. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - MAY 10: U.S. President Donald Trump stands with Americans just released from North Korea, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stands nearby, at Joint Base Andrews on May 9, 2018 in Maryland. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to North Korea and returned with the three men who had been detained for up to two years. The three U.S. citizens have been released as a goodwill gesture ahead of a planned summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un.(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images). (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (C) speaks upon the return of US detainees Kim Dong-chul (3rd R), Kim Hak-song (R) and Tony Kim (2nd L) after they were released by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10, 2018. - US President Donald Trump greeted the three US citizens released by North Korea at the air base near Washington early on May 10, underscoring a much needed diplomatic win and a stepping stone to a historic summit with Kim Jong Un. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (C) speaks upon the return of US detainees Kim Dong-chul (4th L), Kim Hak-song (3rd R) and Tony Kim (3rd L) after they were released by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10, 2018. - US President Donald Trump greeted the three US citizens released by North Korea at the air base near Washington early on May 10, underscoring a much needed diplomatic win and a stepping stone to a historic summit with Kim Jong Un. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (L) applauds as US detainee Kim Dong-chul (2nd R) gestures upon his return with Kim Hak-song (behind) and Tony Kim (2nd L) after they were released by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10, 2018. - US President Donald Trump greeted the three US citizens released by North Korea at the air base near Washington early on May 10, underscoring a much needed diplomatic win and a stepping stone to a historic summit with Kim Jong Un. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (L) and wife Melania Trump (2nd L) walk with US detainees Tony Kim (2nd R), Kim Hak-song (R) and Kim Dong-chul (C) upon their return after they were released by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10, 2018. - US President Donald Trump greeted the three US citizens released by North Korea at the air base near Washington early on May 10, underscoring a much needed diplomatic win and a stepping stone to a historic summit with Kim Jong Un. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (L) applauds as US detainee Kim Dong-chul (2nd R) gestures upon his return with Kim Hak-song (hidden behind) and Tony Kim (2nd L) after they were released by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10, 2018. - US President Donald Trump greeted the three US citizens released by North Korea at the air base near Washington early on May 10, underscoring a much needed diplomatic win and a stepping stone to a historic summit with Kim Jong Un. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 10: President Donald J. Trump disembarks a plane with first lady Melania Trump and three freed American prisoners after their arrival from North Korea at Joint Base Andrews on Thursday, May 10, 2018 in Joint Base Andrews, MD. The prisoner release appears to be a gesture to set the stage for a landmark summit between President Donald J. Trump and Kim Jong Un. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) shakes hands with US detainee Tony Kim (C) as US Vice President Mike Pence (back L) and Melania Trump (L) look on, upon arrival after three detainees were freed by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10, 2018. - US President Donald Trump greeted the three US citizens released by North Korea at the air base near Washington early on May 10, underscoring a much needed diplomatic win and a stepping stone to a historic summit with Kim Jong Un. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (C) speaks upon the return of US detainees Kim Dong-chul (3rd R), Kim Hak-song (R) and Tony Kim (2nd L) after they were released by North Korea, at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on May 10, 2018. - US President Donald Trump greeted the three US citizens released by North Korea at the air base near Washington early on May 10, underscoring a much needed diplomatic win and a stepping stone to a historic summit with Kim Jong Un. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, gives a thumbs-up as he walks with First Lady Melania Trump on the South Lawn of the White House after landing on Marine One following an event at Joint Base Andrews in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, May 10, 2018.Trump�personally welcomed home three Americans released from detention in North Korea, a triumphant middle-of-the-night moment for the president as he prepares for a landmark summit with�Kim Jong Un. Photographer: Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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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.

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Kim Dong-Chul one of three Americans returning from North Korea
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Korean American Kim Dong Chul

KCNA via Reuters/File Photo 

FILE PHOTO - A man who identified himself as Kim Dong Chul, who previously said he was a naturalized American citizen and was arrested in North Korea in October, attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, North Korea on March 25, 2016. KCNA via Reuters/File Photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA
Korean American Kim Dong Chul reacts in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang April 29, 2016. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Korean American Kim Dong Chul is escorted during his trial in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang April 29, 2016. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
FILE PHOTO - A man (C) who identified himself as Kim Dong Chul, previously said he was a naturalised American citizen and was arrested in North Korea in October, leaves after a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo March 25, 2016. REUTERS/Kyodo/File Photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN
Korean American Kim Dong Chul reacts in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang April 29, 2016. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
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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)

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