WASHINGTON -- Envisioning "a very special moment for world peace," President Donald Trump announced Thursday he will meet North Korea's Kim Jong Un for highly anticipated summit talks in Singapore on June 12. He set the stage for his announcement by hosting a 3 a.m., made-for-TV welcome home for three Americans held by Kim's government.
Final details in place, Trump and Kim agreed to the first face-to-face North Korea-U.S. summit since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. It's the most consequential and perhaps riskiest foreign policy effort so far in Trump's presidency as North Korea's nuclear program approaches a treacherous milestone - the capacity to strike the continental U.S. with a thermonuclear warhead.
Trump says the U.S. is aiming for "denuclearization" of the entire Korean peninsula, but he has yet to fill in just what steps that might include and what the timing would be.
"We're starting off on a new footing," Trump said of himself and Kim as he welcomed the detainees in a floodlit ceremony at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington. He hailed their release as a potential breakthrough in relations between the longtime adversary nations.
He and Kim "will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace!" he said of the summit later on Twitter. He told reporters, "I think it's going to be a big success."
Kim has suspended nuclear and missile tests and put his nuclear program up for negotiation, but questions remain about how serious his offer is and what disarmament steps he would be willing to take. The White House has said withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from South Korea is "not on the table."
Long before dawn Thursday, with the former detainees by his side on the air base tarmac, Trump said it was a "great honor" to welcome them back to the U.S. but "the true honor is going to be if we have a victory in getting rid of nuclear weapons."
The ceremony, which also featured a giant American flag suspended between the ladders of two firetrucks, emphasized Trump's penchant for the dramatic as he raised expectations for the summit. And it underscored how closely the fate of his foreign policy agenda is being tied to the North Korean negotiations.
He had wanted to hold the summit in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas but yielded to the concerns of officials who thought a DMZ meeting would focus attention on relations between the North and South rather than the nuclear question.
Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, other top officials and first lady Melania joined the president for the air base celebration. The former detainees - Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim - had been released Wednesday at the end of Pompeo's visit to North Korea.
They appeared tired but in excellent spirits, flashing peace signs and waving their arms as they emerged from the aircraft. One said through a translator, "It's like a dream; we are very, very happy." They later gave the president a round of applause.
Pence said Pompeo had told him that at a refueling stop in Anchorage, "one of the detainees asked to go outside the plane because he hadn't seen daylight in a very long time." The men were taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for evaluation before being reunited with their families.
Trump thanked North Korean leader Kim for releasing the Americans and said, "I really think he wants to do something" on denuclearization.
Pence said on NBC News, "In this moment the regime in North Korea has been dealing, as far as we can see, in good faith."
Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who was among several Republican lawmakers who dined with Trump and National Security Adviser John Bolton Wednesday evening before the detainees returned, said their release was a positive development, but he remained cautious about North Korea's intentions.
"We are in uncharted waters," he said. "This is the highest level diplomacy that the United States has to offer. Failure would be a significant setback to diplomatic efforts."
As for the venue, why Singapore?
Located at the southern tip of Malaysia, the prosperous city state is a regional Southeast Asia hub whose free enterprise philosophy welcomes trading partners from everywhere. It has close diplomatic and military ties with the U.S. and yet is also familiar ground for North Korea, with which it established diplomatic relations in 1975.
"Since their independence, they've very deliberately developed a reputation as an honest broker between East and West," said David Adelman, the former U.S. ambassador.
The White House choreographed the arrival event at the air base, the image-conscious president telling reporters, "I think you probably broke the all-time-in-history television rating for 3 o'clock in the morning."
The public display stood in stark contrast to the low-key, private reception that the State Department had envisioned, in keeping with a practice of trying to protect potentially traumatized victims from being thrust into the spotlight so soon after an ordeal.
Shortly after they touched down in Alaska, the department released a statement from the freed men. They expressed their appreciation to Trump, Pompeo and the people of the United States and added: "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."
North Korea had accused the three of anti-state activities. But their arrests were widely seen as politically motivated and had compounded the dire state of relations over the isolated nation's nuclear weapons.
The three are:
- Kim Dong Chul, 64, a South Korea-born U.S. citizen and the longest-serving detainee. He received a 10-year prison term with hard labor in April 2016 for allegedly "perpetrating state subversive plots and espionage against" North Korea. Before his sentencing, the former Virginia resident publicly apologized for slandering North Korea's leadership, collecting and passing confidential information to South Korea and joining a smear campaign on the North's human rights situation. Other foreigners have publicly admitted crimes but have said later their confessions were given involuntarily.
- Tony Kim, who also goes by the Korean name Kim Sang-duk, had a master's degree in business administration from the University of California, Riverside, and taught accounting at a private university in Pyongyang. He was detained at the Pyongyang airport for "criminal acts of hostility aimed to overturn" North Korea, according to the North's Korean Central News Agency, which didn't detail those acts.
- Kim Hak Song, who worked in agricultural development at an experimental farm run by the same school, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. He was accused of engaging in unspecified "hostile acts" against North Korea.
The last American to be released before this, college student Otto Warmbier, died in June 2017, days after he was repatriated to the U.S. with severe brain damage. Warmbier was arrested in January 2016, accused of stealing a propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor.
"We are happy for the hostages and their families," the Warmbiers said in a statement Wednesday. "We miss Otto."
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President Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to meet June 12 in Singapore