North Korea released three American prisoners and handed them over to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday, clearing a major obstacle to an unprecedented summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The men, who were freed after Pompeo met Kim, were on the way home from Pyongyang on the chief U.S. diplomat’s plane. The president planned to greet them when they land at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington at around 2 a.m. EDT (0600 GMT) Thursday morning.
The release, which was praised by the White House as a “gesture of goodwill,” appeared to signal an effort by Kim to set a more favorable tone for the summit and followed his recent pledge to suspend missile tests and shut a North Korean nuclear bomb test site.
While Kim is giving up the last of his American detainees, whom North Korea has often used as bargaining chips with the United States, their return could also be aimed at pressuring Trump to make concessions of his own as he tries to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal, something it has not signaled a willingness to do.
WATCH: Released Korean Americans on their way back to U.S.
The release gave Trump a chance to tout a diplomatic achievement just a day after his decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal drew heavy criticism from European allies and others.
“I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
“I appreciate Kim Jong Un doing this and allowing them to go,” Trump told reporters at the White House. He also said Chinese President Xi Jinping helped secure the men’s freedom.
The family of Tony Kim, one of the freed prisoners, said in a statement: “We are very grateful for the release of our husband and father, Tony Kim, and the other two American detainees.”
WATCH: U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would not take place at the DMZ and that they would announce details of the planned meeting within three days, while also remarking on the three U.S. men released from North Korea saying they “seem to be healthy.”
The fate of the three Korean-Americans had been among a number of delicate issues in the run-up to the first-ever meeting of U.S. and North Korean leaders, which is being planned for late May or early June.
As Pompeo returned to his Pyongyang hotel from a 90-minute meeting with Kim, the secretary of state crossed his fingers when asked by reporters if there was good news about the prisoners.
A North Korean official came to the hotel shortly afterwards to inform Pompeo that Kim had granted them “amnesty,” according to a senior U.S. official present for the exchange.
Pompeo replied: “That’s great,” according to the official.
“You should make care that they do not make the same mistakes again,” the North Korean official was quoted as saying. “This was a hard decision.”
The three, who walked without assistance to Pompeo’s plane and were seated near medical personnel, were in the air less than an hour after leaving custody.
“They were happy to be with us on this plane, to be sure,” Pompeo told reporters during the flight.
They are Korean-American missionary Kim Dong-chul, detained in 2015; Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim, who spent a month teaching at the foreign-funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) before he was arrested in 2017; and Kim Hak-song, who also taught at PUST and was detained last year.
North Korean state media says they were arrested either for subversion or “hostile acts” against the government. Many foreigners detained by North Korea in the past have said the government forced them into making confessions to false or trumped-up charges.
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