WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced on Twitter Wednesday that three American citizens long detained by North Korea had been released and were expected to arrive back in the United States early Thursday morning.
“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,” Trump tweeted. “They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set.”
In a follow-up tweet, Trump said that “Secretary Pompeo and his ‘guests’ will be landing” at Joint Base Andrews at 2 a.m. Thursday.
“I will be there to greet them. Very exciting!” Trump tweeted.
The Trump administration had been pressing for the release of the three detainees ahead of a high-stakes summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In brief remarks to reporters at the White House on Wednesday, Trump said a date and location for the summit would be announced in the next three days, adding that the Demilitarized Zone, which separates North Korea and South Korea, had been ruled out as a site. Trump had initially stated his preference for talks to be held at the so-called DMZ.
He also thanked Kim for releasing the Americans, saying, “I appreciate Kim Jong Un for doing this.”
The three men, in a statement released by the State Department on Wednesday evening, relayed their gratitude.
“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.”
One of the three released Americans is Kim Dong Chul, 64, who was arrested in October 2015. The former resident of Fairfax, Virginia, managed a hotel business near the border of North Korea and China and was accused by North Korea of spying for South Korea and trying to spread religious ideas.
The two other U.S. citizens, who were detained last year, were affiliated with a Korean-American Christian group. They were charged by North Korean officials with “committing criminal acts of hostility aimed to overturn” Kim’s regime.
Tony Kim, 59, an accountant, and Kim Hak Song, an agricultural consultant, whose age is unknown, had worked as instructors for the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology before they were arrested.
Trump views the release “as a positive gesture of goodwill,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Wednesday.
She added, “The three Americans appear to be in good condition and were all able to walk on the plane without assistance. All Americans look forward to welcoming them home and to seeing them reunited with their loved ones.”
Later Wednesday, The Associated Press reported that the men’s plane had touched down on American soil in Alaska for a refueling stop.
The trio’s condition is a contrast to that of Otto Warmbier, a college student who was arrested by North Korean authorities in January 2016. They accused him of stealing a poster from his hotel and sentenced him to 15 years in a labor camp.
Warmbier, 22, was released 17 months later, in June 2017, and brought to a Cincinnati hospital, where he died days later. Doctors said he had suffered from extensive brain damage while in North Korea, but North Korean officials blamed his condition on botulism.
Last month, Warmbier’s parents filed a lawsuit in federal court against North Korea, accusing the Kim regime of torturing and murdering their son.
U.S. relations with North Korea seem to have improved since Warmbier’s death. On Tuesday, Trump dropped the news that Pompeo was on his way there for a second visit with North Korean officials, a surprise tidbit at the end of his speech about withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.
Pompeo, speaking to North Korean officials over lunch, said he was “hopeful” about the upcoming denuclearization talks, according to The Washington Post, one of two news outlets that traveled with him.
“For decades, we have been adversaries,” Pompeo said. “Now we are hopeful that we can work together to resolve this conflict, take away threats to the world and make your country have all the opportunities your people so richly deserve.”