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WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump greeted three Americans released by North Korea at an air base near Wash­in­g­ton early Thursday, underscoring a much needed diplomatic win and a stepping stone to a historic summit with Kim Jong-Un.

Trump and first lady Melania made the short helicopter ride from the White House to Joint Base Andrews to personally welcome Kim Hak-song, Tony Kim and Kim Dong-chul back to the United States, after their release from North Korea on Wednesday.

The president and his wife strode up the steps into the blue and white plane to greet them privately before coming out before TV cameras in the middle of the night.

One of the former prisoners waved his arms from atop the steps, and another while down on the tarmac.

“It was understood that we would be able to get these three terrific people during the meeting and bring them home after the meeting,” Trump said. “He was nice in letting them go before the meeting. Frankly, we didn’t think this was going to happen. And it did.”

Remarking on the sudden shift in US relations with North Korea, Trump said: “We’re starting off on a new footing ... he released the folks early. It’s a big thing. Very important to me. And I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful and if anybody would have said that five years ago, 10 years ago — even a year ago — you would have said that’s not possible.” He added: “A lot of very good things have happened.”

The North Korean regi­­me granted the three men “amnesty,” a US official said, removing a major point of friction between Washington and Pyong­yang and a potential obstacle to talks between the Cold War foes.

Two of the men, agricultural expert Kim Hak-song and former professor Tony Kim, were arrested in 2017, while Kim Dong-chul, a South Korea-born Ameri­can businessman and pastor in his 60s, was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour in 2016.

On their arrival, a reporter asked the men how they were treated in North Korea. Kim Dong-chul spoke up, and through a translator said: “Yes, we were treated in many different ways. For me, I had to do a lot of labour. But when I got sick, I was also treated by them.”

“All indications are at this point that their health is as good as could be given that they’ve been held,” Pompeo told reporters.

The trio also released a statement of thanks via the State Department.

“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.”

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2018