WASHINGTON — Just maybe, the extraordinary scene that unfolded in the dead of night on an airfield outside Washington early Thursday is the start of something truly historic.
President Donald Trump welcomed home three American prisoners from North Korea, citing their release as proof that his diplomacy with the isolated state is delivering. In what must have been a surreal experience, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang Duk — who were only released from custody on Wednesday — were suddenly plunged into a media circus.
“I think you probably broke the all-time in history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning,” Trump told reporters at Joint Base Andrews as he stood alongside the freed prisoners.
While history suggests skepticism is warranted over North Korea’s apparent opening, and Trump will face accusations of taking a premature victory lap, Thursday’s events nevertheless pointed to a moment of rare hope in the world’s last Cold War standoff.
By securing the prisoners’ release the Trump administration could claim a genuine foreign policy victory that further built confidence ahead of his looming historic planned summit with Kim Jong Un.
The welcoming ceremony also offered the world a picture of Trump as a peacemaker, after he was widely condemned abroad for pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday.
Ever eager to command the spotlight, even at 3 a.m. ET, Trump strode out to the blue-and-white liveried government jet that carried the men home and was picked out of the night sky with floodlights and parked in front of a huge American flag.
After a few minutes inside, the President and first lady Melania Trump stood at the top of the aircraft steps with the three men, providing a photo to greet Americans as they awoke.
Trump said it was “nice” of the North Korean dictator, who presides over gulags and repression, to let the men go before the summit, which is expected to happen within weeks, possibly in Singapore.
He said the gesture was a sign that the thaw in US-North Korean relations was ahead of schedule
“We are starting off on a new footing — I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful. A lot of very good things have happened,” Trump said.
“I really think he wants to do something and bring the country into the real world,” he added, referring to Kim, whom he once blasted as “Little Rocket Man.”
“It’s never been taken this far, there has never been a relationship like this. I really think a lot of progress has been made,” Trump said.
The United States has made several agreements to freeze the North’s nuclear program over the last 25 years, but the deals have always foundered amid cheating by Pyongyang and mistrust between the two sides.
Often, Andrews has been a scene of tragedy — it was where President John F. Kennedy’s body was returned on the night of his assassination. More recently, President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton looked on as the remains of slain US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens were returned home.
But early Thursday, the sense of optimism and symbolism approached euphoric levels.
Trump is, however, also taking a risk — by making such a splash of the prisoners’ return he will be accused by critics of exploiting them as props for a presidency in crisis.
He also raised the stakes to massive levels ahead of the summit in a way that belies the complex and uncertain path towards his goal of convincing North Korea to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
There was one moment of discord — when Trump characteristically slammed The New York Times which he accused of reporting that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had gone “missing” when he was headed to North Korea to get the prisoners.
In fact, the paper said that European diplomats were “perplexed” that they couldn’t reach Pompeo in the run-up to Trump’s announcement on Iran.
Many experts believe that Trump deserves praise for turning his inflammatory rhetoric and strategy of maximum pressure into an opening for a summit that has the potential to ease one of the world’s most dangerous standoffs.
There is now no doubt that the administration is comprehensively laying a bet on Kim’s willingness to change: for instance, Pompeo was pictured in a chummy photo-op with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang.
But by personalizing the initiative, the administration is putting Trump’s prestige on the line in a way that could backfire if the talks fail. Lost in the euphoria early Thursday was the reality that North Korea seized the Americans to use as pawns in its wider diplomatic chess game with the US.
So far, in the North Korean diplomatic gambit, Trump has granted Kim the huge concession of a one-on-one summit, a meeting long craved by Pyongyang.
Kim has not been quite so daring in return.
While he has frozen missile and nuclear tests, offered to close one of North Korea’s nuclear test sites, and declined to kick up a stink about US-South Korean military exercises this year, Kim is yet to offer any “irreversible concessions to the United States,” said CNN global affairs analyst Max Boot.
“It’s great for example that he’s releasing the three hostages, but remember he took the hostages in order to release them later and to get rewarded for it, so this is not a huge breakthrough,” said Boot.
Given the imbalance in concessions offered so far, it is significant that Trump announced Wednesday that the summit with Kim will not take place in the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.
White House officials are now preparing for the encounter to take place in Singapore, which would spare the US President the indignity of traveling to Kim’s doorstep to meet him, CNN reported Wednesday.
Still, Kim’s willingness to give up a bargaining chip in the form of the three prisoners at this stage is being interpreted in Washington as an indication that Kim wants to do everything he can to make the summit a success.
“This is what we would call at the State Department a CBM — a confidence building measure — obviously baked into the plan to agree to have Trump sit down with Kim Jong Un,” said John Kirby, a former State Department spokesman and CNN contributor.
“Good news and certainly indicative of the fact that KJU is taking this summit seriously and that the North Koreans really are serious about wanting to sit down,” Kirby said Wednesday on CNN’s “New Day.”
But Kirby warned that the release of the prisoners should not be interpreted as a sign that the summit itself will necessarily be a success or that Pyongyang would offer to give up its nuclear arsenal.
Indeed, in recent days, the massive scale of Trump’s task has started to become clear.
According to China’s official Xinhua news agency, Kim said during a visit to China to meet President Xi Jinping that the Korean peninsula could be denuclearized if South Korea and the US were ready to take “synchronous measures for the realization of peace.”
Korea watchers interpreted those comments as a sure sign that Kim, who is desperate to alleviate his country’s economic isolation, would demand significant concessions in return for ceding his nuclear arsenal.
Some White House officials, including national security adviser John Bolton before he took up his current post, have suggested that it will be a short conversation if Kim does not immediately agree to hand over his nuclear weapons.