WASHINGTON — President Trump, exulting in the release of three Americans from prison in North Korea, confirmed Thursday that he would meet Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, in Singapore on June 12, setting the date for a once unimaginable encounter.
The choice of Singapore, a tidy, prosperous city-state with ties to both the United States and North Korea, is a small victory for Mr. Trump’s advisers, who talked him out of meeting Mr. Kim in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea — a far more symbolic, but politically problematic, location.
“We will both try to make it a very special moment for World Peace!” Mr. Trump said in a midmorning post on Twitter, hours after he traveled in the middle of the night to Joint Base Andrews near Washington to greet the three men: Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song.
North Korea’s release of the Americans lifted a major obstacle to the summit meeting. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has taken charge of the diplomatic opening to the North, finalized its date and location during a 90-minute meeting with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, the North’s capital. Afterward, Mr. Pompeo left with the detainees on his plane.
For Mr. Trump, basking in the glow of floodlights and TV cameras, it was a jubilant moment as he descended the steps of the aircraft with the three Americans, who flashed peace signs. But he acknowledged that the most difficult phase of the negotiations — persuading North Korea to surrender its nuclear weapons arsenal — lies ahead.
“We’re starting off on a new footing,” he said. “I think he did this because I really think he wants to do something and bring that country into the real world.”
As the two sides discussed potential meeting sites — the United States, South Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and even a Navy warship anchored in the Pacific — they balanced political issues with practical considerations, like whether Mr. Kim could fly long distances on North Korea’s rickety aircraft.
Last week, Mr. Trump expressed his preference for the Demilitarized Zone, saying that if the talks were successful, “there’s a great celebration to be had on the site.” He was clearly beguiled by the meeting of Mr. Kim and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, which was replete with the images of two long-estranged neighbors making peace.
But that symbolism troubled some officials, who argued that the Demilitarized Zone, because of its connection to the Korean War, would put a greater spotlight on the prospects for peace on the Korean Peninsula than on ridding the North of its nuclear weapons. They also worried about the optics of Mr. Trump traveling to Mr. Kim’s doorstep.
Singapore, by contrast, is neutral ground, nearly 3,000 miles from Pyongyang, and not a treaty ally of the United States, like South Korea, Japan or the Philippines.
Both countries have embassies there, United States Navy warships call at Singapore’s port and North Korea has operated trading companies there, though they have been shut down because of sanctions against Pyongyang.
“North Korea will have a comfort level there that they just don’t have in other countries,” said Franklin L. Lavin, who served as the American ambassador to Singapore under President George W. Bush.
A large C.I.A. station is also in Singapore, another former official said, and American spies meet regularly with their North Korean counterparts as part of an intelligence channel between the two countries. Negotiations for the meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim have largely been carried out through this intelligence channel.
Singapore — unlike, say, Mongolia — is also viewed as safe for both leaders. “I’m sure North Korea would have preferred the DMZ,” said Joseph Y. Yun, who recently retired as the State Department’s senior diplomat on Korea. “But it’s an orderly place. No feisty protesters.”
For Mr. Kim, there is one awkward element: Singapore borders Malaysia, where his half brother, Kim Jong-nam, was killed after two women attacked him with a deadly nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The North Korean government is widely suspected of ordering the attack.
As for the questions about Mr. Kim’s ability to fly, he just met with President Xi Jinping of China in the Chinese coastal city of Dalian — the first time a North Korean leader had flown abroad in 32 years. That eased doubts about whether he can get to Singapore, though there are still questions about the range of North Korea’s Soviet-era aircraft.
Finally, Singapore is an Asian media center, wired to play host to a worldwide television extravaganza. For Mr. Trump, who has squeezed drama out of every step in his improbable overture to North Korea, that is not an insignificant asset.
“This summit is all about the optics for both Kim and Trump,” said Michael J. Green, the Japan chair of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. “Things can’t go awry in Singapore the way they could in Mongolia.”
Certainly, Mr. Trump celebrated the release of the detainees as a foreign policy triumph. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; and the first lady, Melania Trump, joined the president at Joint Base Andrews after 2 a.m. Thursday to welcome the men.
In a statement released as they traveled to the United States, the prisoners said that they wanted to express their “deep appreciation to the United States government, President Trump, Secretary Pompeo and the people of the United States for bringing us home.”
Some critics questioned why Mr. Trump thanked Mr. Kim for releasing Americans that North Korea had effectively kidnapped. Mr. Kim, he said, “really was excellent to these three incredible people.”
Previous administrations, including President Barack Obama’s, secured the release of imprisoned Americans from North Korea without promising a summit meeting or improved diplomatic relations. Mr. Trump criticized Mr. Obama for failing to win the release of the three men, who had been held on charges of committing espionage or “hostile acts” against North Korea. But two were taken prisoner after Mr. Trump took office.
The three men include Kim Dong-chul, a businessman and naturalized American citizen from the Virginia suburbs of Washington. He had been sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor in April 2016 after being convicted of spying and other offenses.
Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk, was arrested in April 2017 while trying to board a plane to leave the country. He had spent a month teaching accounting at a Christian-funded school, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
Kim Hak-song, who volunteered at the school’s agricultural research farm, was arrested in May 2017. He was born in China near the North Korean border, according to CNN, and immigrated to the United States in the 1990s. He later returned to China and eventually moved to Pyongyang.
Speaking through a translator, one of the men recounted his time in captivity, describing long days in labor camps but adding that he had received medical treatment when needed.
Shortly after meeting Mr. Trump, the men were taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for further evaluation. Maj. Carla M. Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said that they had “demonstrated significant emotional and physical resiliency,” and that the most crucial aspect of their recovery would be establishing a routine, focusing on nutrition and keeping “stimuli” to a minimum in the short term.
Their release was in a striking contrast to Otto F. Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was returned home in June after spending 17 months in captivity in Pyongyang, much of it in a coma. He never regained consciousness and died days later.
On the tarmac, Mr. Trump acknowledged the Warmbier family. “I want to pay my warmest respects to the parents of Otto Warmbier,” the president said, “who was a great young man who really suffered.”
As Mr. Trump prepared to see the three men off, he turned back toward the floodlights. “I think you probably broke the all-time-in-history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning,” he said.
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