During an overnight ceremony outside Washington, President Donald Trump welcomed three Americans back home after they were released from imprisonment in North Korea.
Speaking early Thursday at Joint Base Andrews air force base outside Washington, Trump said greeting the former detainees was a “great honor” and he expressed optimism about future negotiations with North Korea.
“We want to thank Kim Jong Un,” Trump said after the newly freed Americans disembarked, adding that “I really think he wants to do something.”
Watch the welcoming ceremony below:
The release of the three men – Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song, and Tony Kim – comes amid warming relations between the U.S. and North Korea with hopes to denuclearize the Korea Peninsula. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his second visit this year to the isolated nation to arrange a planned meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un and to retrieve the detainees.
After meeting privately with the men on the plane, the president was joined with first lady Melania Trump and the former hostages, who raised their arms and threw up peace signs in excitement while U.S. service members cheered their return.
“This is a special night for these three really great people,” Trump told reporters on the tarmac shortly after 3 a.m. On U.S. relations with North Korea, Trump proclaimed, “We’re starting off on a new footing.”
When asked how it feels to finally be back home, one of the men answered through a translator: “It’s like a dream; we are very, very happy.”
The three men then prepared to leave on a bus to be evaluated at a nearby medical facility before being reunited with their families.
The welcoming ceremony, with its swarm of reporters and a massive American flag hoisted above the plane, was a stark contrast to the smaller event intended by the State Department, which had given the men a private space during the flight from North Korea out of concern for their emotional state after potentially traumatizing experiences as prisoners of the Kim regime, according to The Associated Press.
But the men seemed in good health and spirits when they were thrust into the spotlight upon their arrival on U.S soil, and after a refueling stop in Alaska, the State Department released a statement from the former detainees.
“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.”
Meanwhile, the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died in 2017 shortly after being released from captivity in North Korea, released a statement welcoming the former hostages despite heavy hearts for their son. They have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against North Korea, which they accuse of torturing their son to death.
“We are happy for the hostages and their families,” said Fred and Cindy Warmbier in a statement Wednesday. “We miss Otto.”
The State Department and the White House has stressed that the latest detainees to return home seem to be in good health and the president commended Kim Jong Un’s treatment of the men, saying the North Korean leader was “excellent” to the former hostages.
Their release signals another step toward a warming of relations between the U.S. and North Korea as Trump plans a historic meeting with Kim Jong Un later this year in the hopes of instituting lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.