WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore on June 12, Trump announced Thursday, hours after suggesting that the release of three Americans held in the North heralded a potential breakthrough toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
“We will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace!” Trump said in a tweet.
With the final details in place, Trump and Kim will meet in the first North Korea-U.S. summit talks since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Kim has suspended nuclear and missile tests and put his nuclear program up for negotiation, but questions remain about how serious his offer is and what disarmament steps he would be willing to take.
Earlier Thursday, with the American former detainees by his side on a dark air base tarmac, Trump said during a made-for-TV ceremony that it was a “great honor” to welcome the men back to the U.S., but he added that “the true honor is going to be if we have a victory in getting rid of nuclear weapons.”
Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, other top officials and first lady Melania joined the president in the celebration in the wee hours of Thursday morning at Joint Base Andrews near Washington. The former detainees — Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim — had been released Wednesday amid the warming of relations between longtime adversaries.
They appeared tired but in excellent spirits, flashing peace signs and waving their arms as they emerged from the aircraft. When asked by reporters how it felt to be home, one of the men answered through a translator, “It’s like a dream; we are very, very happy.” They later gave the president a round of applause.
Suggesting that recovery from their ordeals would take time, Pence recounted Thursday morning that Pompeo told him that at the refueling stop in Anchorage, “one of the detainees asked to go outside the plane because he hadn’t seen daylight in a very long time.”
Trump thanked North Korean leader Kim for releasing the Americans and said he believes Kim wants to reach an agreement on denuclearization at their upcoming summit. “I really think he wants to do something,” the president said.
Pence said Thursday on NBC News, “In this moment the regime in North Korea has been dealing, as far as we can see, in good faith.”
Singapore had emerged as the likely host of the summit after Trump yielded to the concerns of his aides and backed off his desire to hold the meeting at the inter-Korean demilitarized zone.
Located at the southern tip of Malaysia, Singapore is a regional hub in Southeast Asia whose free enterprise philosophy welcomes trading partners from everywhere. It has close diplomatic and defense ties with the U.S. and yet is also familiar ground for North Korea, with which it established diplomatic relations in 1975.
A prosperous city state, Singapore has already hosted a historic meeting between two leaders burdened with a legacy of bad blood and mutual distrust. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s then-President Ma Ying-jeou came in 2015 to discuss cross-strait issues, the first such meeting since Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
In the U.S., shortly before 3 a.m. on Thursday, Trump and first lady boarded the medical plane on which the detainees had traveled and spent several minutes meeting with them privately. The group then emerged at top of the airplane stairway, where the men held up their arms in an exuberant display.
U.S. service members on the tarmac burst into applause and cheers.
“This is a special night for these three really great people,” Trump told reporters. On the U.S. relationship with North Korea, Trump declared, “We’re starting off on a new footing.”
The White House choreographed the arrival event, suspending a giant American flag between two firetrucks on the tarmac and inviting reporters to witness the return. The image-conscious president told reporters, “I think you probably broke the all-time-in-history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning.”
The men were taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where they were to be evaluated and receive medical treatment before being reunited with their families.
The public display stood in stark contrast to the low-key, private reception that the State Department had envisioned, in keeping with a practice of trying to protect potentially traumatized victims from being thrust into the spotlight so soon after their ordeal.
Department officials took great pains on the prisoners’ release in North Korea, as well as on their flights to Japan and Alaska, to keep them sequestered not only from the two journalists traveling with Pompeo but also from staffers not immediately involved in their cases. The trio, along with medical personnel that included a psychiatrist, were cloistered in the middle of Pompeo’s plane in a small section of 12 business class-size seats cordoned off by curtains on both ends.
State Department officials refused to discuss anything but the most basic details of their conditions, citing privacy concerns in keeping with the minimal amount of information they had released since the men were imprisoned.
Shortly after they touched down in Alaska, 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.”
Trump entered office as an emboldened North Korea developed new generations of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental U.S.
Crediting himself for recent progress, Trump has pointed to Kim’s willingness to come to the negotiating table as validating U.S. moves to tighten sanctions — branded “maximum pressure” by the president.
Kim decided to grant amnesty to the three Americans at the “official suggestion” of the U.S. president, said North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA.
North Korea had accused the three 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 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.”
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey and Ken Thomas in Washington, Grant Peck in Bangkok, and Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang contributed to this report.