The return of the prisoners — Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song — to the United States removed a delicate obstacle as the president prepares to sit down with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, for a landmark nuclear summit meeting.
Trump, frustrated by news reports about a continuing investigation into his presidential campaign’s ties to Russia and faced with criticism from key European allies for withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, was eager to celebrate a foreign policy triumph. Hours earlier, he had mused on Twitter about barring the news media from future events because of displeasure over what he perceived to be negative coverage of his administration. But dozens of journalists assembled at the air base early Thursday, training their cameras on a large American flag that had been strung up on the tarmac as they awaited the arrival of the president and the freed prisoners.
The arrival of the men in Maryland capped a whirlwind journey for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who secured their release during a 13-hour visit to Pyongyang, the North’s capital. He was in Pyongyang to arrange the summit meeting, which Trump hopes to use to persuade Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons program.
The president spent the hours before the men’s arrival in a celebratory mood. He mentioned in a Cabinet meeting that “everyone thinks” he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for overseeing the prisoners’ release.
“But I would never say it,” Trump continued. “The prize I want is victory for the world.”
The president had also posted excitedly on Twitter that he planned to greet the “Hostages (no longer)” upon their arrival at 2 a.m.
In a statement as they traveled to the United States, the prisoners said that they wanted to give their “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,” they said.
Trump, who delivered on a long-held promise this week by ending the United States’ involvement in the Iran nuclear deal, has sought to deliver on another by improving relations with North Korea after nearly seven decades of mutual antagonism.
Analysts are watching the negotiations closely to see if the return of the prisoners is a gesture of genuine goodwill from the North or if Kim will ultimately use the release of the men as leverage for prolonging the time frame for reducing or completely dismantling North Korea’s nuclear abilities.
The date for the summit meeting has not been announced, but it is likely to be after President Moon Jae-in of South Korea visits the White House on May 22.
As for where the meeting would be held, Trump has ruled out the Demilitarized Zone, the strip of land that divides North and South Korea. One option is Singapore, a neutral site close to the North.
Other administrations, including President Barack Obama’s, secured the release of imprisoned Americans without promising a summit meeting or improved diplomatic relations. Over the past week, Trump had criticized the Obama administration for failing to secure the release of the three men, who had been held on charges of committing espionage or “hostile acts” against North Korea. Two of them were taken prisoner after Trump took office.
Their release comes almost a year after Otto F. Warmbier, an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, was returned to U.S. custody after spending 17 months in captivity, much of it in a coma, in Pyongyang. He died days later.
“We are happy for the hostages and their families,” his parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, told The Washington Post on Wednesday. “We miss Otto.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times
KATIE ROGERS © 2018 The New York Times