US President Donald Trump, alongside First Lady Melania Trump, welcomed the trio when they arrived at the Joint Base Andrews in Maryland outside Washington, DC, on Thursday.
Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim, and Kim Hak-song were held by North Korea for periods ranging between one and two years over alleged anti-state activities.
“We would like to express our deep appreciation to the United States government, President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, and the people of the United States for bringing us home,” the three said in a statement released on their behalf by the US Department of State on Wednesday.
Their release follows US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to North Korea to finalise plans for a summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“This is a special night for these three really great people,” said Trump, as he thanked Kim for the release.
Trump added that his “proudest achievement will be when the entire Korean Peninsula is denuclearised”.
I had productive meetings in Pyongyang with Chairman Kim Jong-un and made progress. I'm delighted to bring home three Americans.
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) May 9, 2018
The US had frequently called for the release of the three prisoners, all of whom are Korean-American nationals, with their detention widely seen as being politically motivated.
The prisoners’ release marks the latest development in improving US-North Korea relations in the run-up to Trump-Kim summit.
Who are the former detainees?
Kim Dong-chul, who served the longest sentence of the three, was arrested in 2015 and handed a 10-year prison term with hard labour for alleged “spying”.
Before that, he had been running a company in North Korea’s special economic zone.
Tony Kim, who was arrested at Pyongyang airport last year, was an accounting teacher at the only privately funded college in North Korea.
The state claimed he was committing “criminal acts of hostility”.
Kim Hak-song, who worked in agricultural development at the same university as Tony Kim, was also arrested last year.
He was detained on similar charges, but it’s not known if their cases were related.
Analysis – Kimberly Halkett, Al Jazeera
“This is certainly a foreign policy achievement for Donald Trump.
“It is a patriotic moment for many Americans to see these men returning to US soil and walking in such good health.
“There was an audible cheer as the three disembarked from the medical plane that had transported them to the US. One of the freed men, Kim Dong-chul, raised his arms triumphantly before walking down to the tarmac.
“This is certainly a significant moment for these men who will now go on for further medical treatment. This is certainly a pivotal point for the US which is viewing this as a goodwill gesture on North Korea’s part.”