News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Trump Welcomes 3 Men Held In North Korea Back To The U.S.


Pretty dramatic moments in the very early hours of this morning - three Americans freed by the North Korean regime on Wednesday arrived safely at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Kim Dong-chul, Kim Hak-song and Tony Kim flew to the United States with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They were greeted by President Trump.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to thank Kim Jong Un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people. They are really three incredible people.

GREENE: All right. We have NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson with us. Hi, Mara.


GREENE: So tell us about the scene. I mean, these are three men who were held for a year or more, right?

LIASSON: That's right. Two of them were taken during the Trump administration, one during the Obama administration. The scene this morning was very dramatic. It was 3 a.m. The plane carrying those three Americans pulled up in front of a giant flag. The president and the first lady got on board while the vice president and the secretary of state waited on the tarmac. You heard a little bit about what Donald Trump had to say. One of the men spoke about his time in captivity. He said he did hard labor but also that he had received medical attention.

GREENE: So I mean, there are really two things going on. It's the incredible story of three men, first of all, who are able to be out of a terrible situation, being detained by another country. But there's also how this fits into the buildup to this potential summit between President Trump and the North Korean leader. The president there praising Kim Jong Un, saying he was excellent to these three incredible people. So how does this fit into the negotiations leading up to the summit?

LIASSON: Donald Trump is taking their release as a sign that the meetings he's going to have with Kim Jong Un will be a success. The fact that he came out to greet them in the middle of the night shows you how important a symbol he thinks this is. He's very optimistic about these meetings. He predicted they'll be a big success. He said last night that he thinks Kim did this because he wants to do something and bring his country into the real world. So he got something he could call a success, the release of the three Americans. North Korea also got a big victory. They've been asking for decades for their leader to meet with the president of the United States to stand side by side on the world stage. They got that.

But that being said, the goals of the two countries are still far apart. The president says his goal is complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, not just a freeze. He wants North Korea to give up all of its nuclear weapons. But North Korea sees its weapons as an insurance policy, kind of the key to the survival of the regime. So how to square those two goals is still the difficult task ahead.

GREENE: Well, and some analysts have suggested that the release of these detainees, I mean, that the timing of it was Kim basically coming up with a way to show that he has made a concession and he'll be able to tell Donald Trump during the summit, like, it's your turn.

LIASSON: That's right. Donald Trump said last night that it was, quote, "sort of understood that we'd be able to get these three terrific people during the meeting and bring them home." And then he said, and Kim was nice in letting them go before the meeting. In other words, he acknowledged that Kim had made a concession. Now, what he's planning to give Kim in return beyond just the incredible victory of a meeting, putting Kim Jong Un on the same level as the president of the United States, is unclear.

GREENE: And, just remind us. We know there is a time and a place, but we don't know what the time and place are for this summit.

LIASSON: Right. The president said he'll announce the date and time in a couple of days - lots of speculation that the meeting will be in Singapore.

GREENE: OK. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson this morning. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.