Donald Trump has greeted three American hostages after their plane from North Korea touched down at an airbase outside Washington DC.
Mr Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, boarded the plane carrying the detainees after it touched down at Joint Base Andrews in the early hours of Thursday morning.
Speaking after they disembarked the plane together with Kim Dong Chul, Kim Sang Duk, Kim Hak-song, Mr Trump said: “We want to thank Kim Jong-un.”
The release was secured as part of ongoing diplomatic talks between the Trump administration and Kim Jong-un, which will culminate in an historic summit within the next month. A denuclearised Korean peninsula would be his “proudest achievement” as president if it could be achieved at the talks, Mr Trump said.
Referring to the possibility of reaching a denuclearisation deal with North Korea, Mr 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 denuclearise that entire peninsula,” he said, adding that he really believed Mr Kim 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,” Mr Trump added.
The three men, one of whom had been detained for more than two-and-a-half years, travelled back from North Korea on a military medical plane accompanied by Mr Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
They had walked without assistance to the US plane that flew them out of Pyongyang, and their flight departed less than an hour after they left custody on what a North Korean official described as an “amnesty” granted personally by Mr Kim.
A White House spokeswoman said they would be taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in nearby Maryland for further medical evaluation.
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.”
Who are the rescued prisoners?
Kim Dong Chul, a Korean-American missionary formerly of Fairfax, Virginia, and thought to be about 62, was sentenced in March 2016 to 10 years of hard labour for subversion. He admitted to committing “unpardonable espionage” under the direction of the US and South Korean governments and deeply apologised for his crimes, the North’s KCNA news agency claimed. Other Americans taken captive by North Korea have said after their release they were forced into making confessions. In an interview with CNN conducted in Pyongyang in January 2016, Mr Kim said he was arrested in October 2015 after spying on behalf of what he called “South Korean conservative elements” who approached him while he was working at a trading business in Rason, a city in northern North Korea near the Chinese border. A North Korean defector later said she had met Mr Kim in the US and that he had told church gatherings he was a missionary helping North Koreans.
Kim Sang Duk, also known as Tony Kim, spent a month teaching accounting at the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) before he was detained at Pyongyang International Airport in April 2017 while trying to leave the country. The university’s chancellor said the arrest was not connected to PUST and that Mr Kim, 59, had been involved with other activities, including helping an orphanage. North Korean state media reported that he was arrested for committing “hostile acts” against the government.
Kim Hak-song, thought to be about 55, also taught at PUST, which was founded by evangelical Christians and opened in 2010. The university’s co-founder said that Mr Kim, who managed the school’s experimental farm at the college of agriculture and life sciences, was detained in May while travelling on a train from Pyongyang to the Chinese border town of Dandong. In February 2015, Mr Kim wrote in a fundraising post on the website of a Korean-Brazilian church that he was a Christian missionary devoted to helping North Korea’s people learn to be self-sufficient. North Korean state media said he also was arrested on suspicion of committing “hostile acts” against the government.
Additional reporting by agencies
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