Three Americans detained in North Korea for more than a year are on their way back to the US with secretary of state Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump has announced.
The move is the latest sign of improving relations between the two long-time adversaries.
Mr Trump said on Twitter that Mr Pompeo is “in the air” and was with “the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting”.
I am pleased to inform you that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in the air and on his way back from North Korea with the 3 wonderful gentlemen that everyone is looking so forward to meeting. They seem to be in good health. Also, good meeting with Kim Jong Un. Date & Place set.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2018
In a US cabinet meeting, Mr Trump said he “appreciates” North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s decision to release the detainees ahead of the leaders’ planned summit.
He said he is looking forward to the meeting and believes it is going to be a great thing for North Korea.
Mr Trump, who had been hinting about an imminent release, said he would greet Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim at Andrews Air Force Base at 2am on Thursday (7am BST).
The president also ruled out the Korean Demilitarised Zone for his upcoming summit with the North Korean leader.
He had said he was interested in holding the historic meeting on the heavily fortified border separating North and South Korea. He had said the DMZ was appealing “because you’re there” and any celebration would be memorable if the talks proved successful.
But he ruled that option out, as he said details of the meeting will be announced in the next two or three days. The meeting is expected to be held in late May or early June.
A number of other countries have also been considered as a venue, including Singapore.
The release of the detainees came as Mr Pompeo visited North Korea on Wednesday to finalise plans for a historic summit between Mr Trump and the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Mr Trump said on Twitter that there had been a “good meeting with Kim Jong Un”, adding: “Date & Place set.”
Secretary Pompeo and his âguestsâ will be landing at Andrews Air Force Base at 2:00 A.M. in the morning. I will be there to greet them. Very exciting!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 9, 2018
North Korea had accused Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak Song and Tony Kim, all Korean-Americans, 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.
They had been held for periods ranging between one and two years. The trio were the latest in a series of Americans who have been detained by North Korea in recent years for seemingly small offences and typically freed when senior US officials or statesmen personally visited to bail them out.
Mr Pompeo, in his visit, discussed the agenda for a potential Trump-Kim summit in a meeting with Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the central committee of North Korea’s ruling party.
Later, Mr Pompeo said the senior official had been a great partner in working to make the summit a success.
“For decades, we have been adversaries. Now we are hopeful that we can work together to resolve this conflict,” Mr Pompeo said, adding that “there are many challenges along the way”.
Mr Kim noted the improved relations between the Koreas, as well as the North’s policy to “concentrate all efforts into economic progress” in the country.
“This is not a result of sanctions that have been imposed from outside,” he added, citing the will of the Korean people. That contradicted Mr Trump, who has said repeatedly that his pressure tactics brought North Korea to the negotiating table.
The family of Tony Kim thanked all those who worked for his return, and also credited Mr Trump for engaging directly with North Korea.
“Mostly we thank God for Tony’s safe return,” the family said in a statement, and they urged people to “continue to pray for the people of North Korea and for the release of all who are still being held”.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Mr Trump viewed the release “as a positive gesture of goodwill”.