Matthew Miller, Kenneth Bae return to U.S. after detention in North Korea

Two Americans released from captivity in North Korea returned to the United States late Saturday after their departure was secured through a secret mission by the top U.S. intelligence official to the reclusive nation.

Pair are the last Americans to be held by the reclusive nation

Matthew Miller, left, was sentenced to six years of hard labour for espionage in North Korea before his release Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

Two Americans released from captivity in North Korea returned to the United States late Saturday after their departure was secured through a secret mission by the top U.S. intelligence official to the reclusive nation.

Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae arrived at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. U.S. officials said the pair flew back with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

Clapper was the highest-ranking American to visit Pyongyang in more than a decade.

Family members met both men with hugs as they emerged from their plane.

"Thank you all for supporting me, lifting me up, not forgetting me," Bae told reporters shortly after his return. He thanked the North Korean government for letting him come home.

Neither Miller nor his family made an immediate public statement.

'It's a wonderful day'

It was the latest twist in the fitful relationship between the Obama administration and the young North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, whose approach to the U.S. has shifted back and forth from defiance to occasional conciliation. And it was an unusual role for Clapper, a retired general who doesn't typically do diplomacy.

Kenneth Bae, left, reunites with his family at U.S. Air Force Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Fort Lewis, Washington November 8, 2014. Bae, who has health problems, had been held in North Korea since 2012. (David Ryder/Reuters)
"It's a wonderful day for them and their families," President Barack Obama said at the White House earlier Saturday. "Obviously we are very grateful for their safe return. And I appreciate Director Clapper doing a great job on what was obviously a challenging mission."

U.S. officials did not immediately provide details about the circumstances of the Americans' release, including whether Clapper met with Kim or other senior North Korean officials. They said the timing was not related to Obama's imminent trip to China, Myanmar and Australia.

A senior administration official said Clapper carried a brief message from Obama indicating that Clapper was his personal envoy to bring the two Americans home. The official spoke on a condition of anonymity without authorization to speak on the record.

'Unexpected leverage for the U.S.'

Analysts who study North Korea said the decision to free Bae and Miller from long prison terms probably was a bid by that country to ease pressure in connection with its human rights record. A recent UN report documented rape, torture, executions and forced labour in the North's network of prison camps, accusing the government of "widespread, systematic and gross" human rights violations.

According to North Korean officials, Miller tore up his passport in Pyongyang airport and said he wanted to experience to prison life in the country. (APTN/ Associated Press)
North Korea seems worried that Kim could be accused in the International Criminal Court, said Sue Mi Terry, a former senior intelligence analyst now at Columbia University.

"This human rights thing is showing itself to be an unexpected leverage for the U.S.," she said.

Bae and Miller were the last Americans held by North Korea.

Bae detained since 2012

Bae, a Korean-American missionary with health problems, was serving a 15-year sentence for alleged anti-government activities. He was detained in 2012 while leading a tour group to a North Korea economic zone.

Terri Chung, Bae's sister, said she received word from the State Department Saturday morning that Bae and Miller were on a plane that had left North Korean airspace. "We have been waiting for and praying for this day for two years. This ordeal has been excruciating for the family, but we are filled with joy right now," Chung said in an emailed statement.

Miller was serving a six-year jail term on charges of espionage after he allegedly ripped up his tourist visa at Pyongyang's airport in April and demanded asylum. North Korea said Miller had wanted to experience prison life so that he could secretly investigate North Korea's human rights situation.

Last month, North Korea released Jeffrey Fowle, who was held for nearly six months. He had left a Bible in a nightclub in the hope that it would reach North Korea's underground Christian community.

Fowle said his fellow Americans' release is "an answer to a prayer." He said he initially thought Bae and Miller had been released with him last month. "I didn't realize they weren't released with me until I got on the plane," he said.

No formal ties

Bae and Miller had told The Associated Press that they believed their only chance of release was the intervention of a high-ranking government official or a senior U.S. statesman. Previously, former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter had gone to North Korea on separate occasions to take detainees home.

Kenneth Bae, an American tour guide and missionary detained in North Korea, was serving a 15-year sentence. (Wong Maye-E/ Associated Press)
Victor Cha, a North Korea expert and former national security official in the George W. Bush administration, said Clapper was the most senior U.S. official to visit North Korea since then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went in 2000 and met with Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong Un's father.

Cha said sending Clapper would have satisfied North Korea's desire for a cabinet-level visitor, while avoiding some of the diplomatic baggage of dispatching a regular U.S. government official. The U.S. and North Korea do not have formal ties, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended without a peace treaty.

The detainee releases do not herald a change in U.S. posture regarding North Korea's disputed nuclear program, the main source of tension between Pyongyang and Washington, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss national security matters.

International aid-for-disarmament talks have been stalled since 2008. The last concerted U.S. effort to restart those negotiations collapsed in spring 2012.

The U.S. notified allies of Clapper's trip to North Korea and alerted members of the congressional leadership once his visit was underway, the official said.


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