WASHINGTON (AP) — Freed after more than a year in prison, three Americans flew homeward from North Korea late Tuesday toward a big middle-of-the-night celebration featuring President Donald Trump — the latest sign of improving relations between longtime adversaries in the buildup to a historic summit between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Trump promised “quite a scene” at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington for the detainees, who were released as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited North Korea on Wednesday to finalize plans for the summit. Singapore was the likely site, late this month or in early June, for Trump’s most ambitious foreign policy effort yet.
Shortly after they touched down on American soil in Alaska — for a refueling 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.”
The men had boarded Pompeo’s plane out of North Korea without assistance and then transferred in Japan to a separate aircraft with more extensive medical facilities. They are expected to arrive at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington in the wee hours of Thursday morning.
North Korea had accused Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim, all 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.
The three had been held for periods ranging from one and two years. They were the latest in a series of Americans who have been detained by North Korea in recent years for seemingly small offenses 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 labor. 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.”
Of the newly released detainees, Kim Dong Chul, a South Korean-born U.S. citizen, had been held the longest. The former Virginia resident was sentenced in April 2016 to 10 years in prison with hard labor after being convicted of espionage. He reportedly ran a trade and hotel service company in Rason, a special economic zone on North Korea’s border with Russia.
The other two detainees hadn’t been tried.
Kim Hak Song worked in agricultural development at an experimental farm run by the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, or PUST. The university is the only privately funded college in North Korea and was founded in 2010 with donations from Christian groups. He was detained last May for alleged anti-state activities.
Tony Kim, who also uses the name Kim Sang-duk, was detained in April 2017 at the Pyongyang airport. He taught accounting at PUST. He was accused of committing unspecified criminal acts intended to overthrow the government.
The family of Tony Kim thanked all those who worked for his return and also credited Trump for engaging directly with North Korea. “Mostly we thank God for Tony’s safe return,” the family said in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chul, director of the United Front Department, which is responsible for North-South Korea affairs (left), and Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong, on his arrival in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, May 9, 2018. Pompeo met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il later and secured the release of three American prisoners ahead of a planned summit between Kim and President Donald Trump.