In the wee hours Thursday morning, President Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrived at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington to welcome home Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and three American hostages who had been held in North Korea. The men — Kim Dong Chul, Tony Kim, and Kim Hak Song — had all been arrested and sentenced to hard labor by North Korean courts on trumped-up charges of political crimes.
As the three men walked down the steps of the plane flashing the “V” for victory sign, they appeared to be in good health — a far cry from the comatose state of 22-year-old U.Va. student Otto Warmbier upon his release from a North Korean prison. He died within a few days after arriving home last June.
Speaking on the tarmac, Trump said: “These are great people. Frankly, we didn’t think this was going to happen, but it did. It was important to get these people out.” The president also thanked the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong un, for releasing the prisoners early, calling it “a wonderful thing,” and adding that he believes Kim “really wants to do the right thing.”
So far, Washington hasn’t said whether the release of the three men was a precondition of agreeing to official talks with Pyongyang. And if Pompeo had consented to any concessions by the U.S. in exchange for the hostages, he isn’t saying. It could be that achieving its longtime goal of the two nations’ leaders sitting down face-to-face was enough to satisfy Pyongyang.
Pompeo’s second trip to North Korea, this time officially as secretary of state, was remarkably productive. Not only did he manage to secure the release of the Americans, he also nailed down a date and time for the much-anticipated meeting between Kim Jong un and Trump. The summit is scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.
The hostage release and the scheduled summit are extraordinary news. As Trump told reporters Thursday morning: “We’re starting off on a new footing. I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful, and if anybody would’ve said that five years ago, 10 years ago, even a year ago, you would’ve said that’s not possible.” That’s true.
However, while release of the hostages is one step in the right direction, there is still a long road ahead to a fully denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Skepticism remains as to North Korea’s intentions. The upcoming summit between the two nations will determine if and how soon denuclearization can possibly happen. And, just as important as the nuclear issue, negotiators at the meeting must address Pyongyang’s dreadful human rights record.
But today Americans should rejoice in the safe return of our fellow citizens. The president deserves credit for their release. Soon enough the difficult work of the summit will begin. We are guardedly hopeful the talks will be as successful.