Upbeat Trump welcomes US prisoners released by North Korea

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md./WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump welcomed three Americans who had been held prisoner in North Korea back home early on Thursday, thanking its leader Kim Jong Un for their release and sounding upbeat about a planned bilateral summit.

The former prisoners, freed after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to Pyongyang for a second meeting with Kim in less than six weeks, landed at around 2.40 a.m. (0640 GMT) at Joint Base Andrews near Washington.

Trump and his wife, Melania, boarded the plane for about five minutes before the three men stepped out, shaking hands with the president and waving to waiting media and military personnel.

“Frankly we didn’t think it was going to happen and it did,” Trump said after thanking Kim for releasing the men.

“We’re starting off on a new footing. This is a wonderful thing that he released the folks early.”

Trump said he believed Kim wanted to bring North Korea “into the real world” and was hopeful of a major breakthrough at their planned meeting, which would be the first between a serving U.S. president and North Korean leader.

“I think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful,” Trump said. “My proudest achievement will be - this is part of it - when we denuclearize that entire peninsula.”

Trump and Kim engaged in a bellicose exchange of rhetoric last year over North Korea’s development of nuclear missiles capable of reaching the United States. Tensions began to ease, coinciding with the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.

There has been no sign that Pompeo’s visit has cleared up the central question of whether North Korea will be willing to bargain away weapons its ruling family has long seen as crucial to its survival.

However, the release of the three men marks a dramatic win for Trump’s embattled White House at a time when his foreign policy is coming under withering criticism following Tuesday’s U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

His administration has also been under fire for ethics violations and a chaotic turnover of personal, and is under intense scrutiny by a special investigator over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.