U.S. President Donald Trump personally welcomed three freed Americans returning home from North Korea early Thursday morning, declaring “we’re starting off on a new footing” with Pyongyang.
During the event at Joint Base Andrews, in the state of Maryland, 25 kilometers from the White House, the president, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, boarded a U.S. Air Force C-40 jet to briefly speak with the three men who had been imprisoned in North Korea.
A large American flag held up by two firetrucks with extended ladders served as a backdrop for their arrival.
Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also greeted the three Korean-Americans when they came off the military plane.
After handshakes, the president standing alongside the three men expressed thanks to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for releasing them, saying, “I really think he wants to do something” to bring North Korea “into the real world.”
Relishing one of the high points, so far, of his unconventional presidency, Trump joked that the air base event probably broke a record for 3 a.m. television ratings.
He later tweeted his welcome home:
The detainees were jointly released the previous day in Pyongyang shortly after Pompeo met for 90 minutes with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The development comes ahead of a planned summit between Trump and Kim..
WATCH: Analysts Say Release of 3 Americans Is an Important Sign from North Korea
US-North Korea summit
Trump has said the date and location of the summit will be announced within days, but it will not occur at the Korean Demilitarized Zone as he had previously suggested as a possible venue.
Singapore is the likeliest location for the summit, according to White House officials.
Trump has said the goal is for North Korea to agree to denuclearize.
A senior U.S. official present for the exchange of detainees in Pyongyang told journalists traveling with Pompeo that a North Korean official informed the secretary of state that Kim had granted amnesties to the three Americans.
In a joint statement released by the State Department late Wednesday, the three men expressed “deep appreciation to the United States government, President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and the people of the United States” for their return.
Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song were teaching at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology when they were separately detained in 2017, accused of participating in anti-state activities and trying to overthrow the government.
The third detainee, Kim Dong Chul, was arrested in Rason on the northeast tip of North Korea in October 2015 and sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor the following year after being convicted of espionage.
Kim Dong Chul, speaking in Korean, when asked by a reporter how the Americans fared in North Korean custody, replied somewhat cryptically “we were treated in many different ways,” adding that however, when he became ill in captivity he was given medical treatment.
Vice President Pence said the U.S. did not make any concessions to North Korea in order to secure the release of the Americans. "Sending these three Americans home before any concessions have been offered I think is a testament to the president's policy of peace through strength," Pence told ABC News.
The three returnees, whose families were not present for their arrival at the base in Maryland, are to undergo evaluations and medical treatment at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Progress made on summit
A U.S. official who participated in the latest talks in Pyongyang said substantial progress was made in planning for the summit and “we also agreed to meet again in person to finalize the details.”
Pompeo told reporters traveling with him that holding such a summit would have been more difficult had the Americans not been released.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that “the maximum pressure campaign has worked, adding that in addition to the president’s efforts “some of that success is due to our allies and partners,” especially the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea.