TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) – Two Americans freed from secretive North Korea stepped off a plane into the welcoming arms of family on Saturday after the surprise involvement of the top-ranking US intelligence official who traveled to Pyongyang to secure their release.
Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, who had been doing hard labor for months in North Korea, were accompanied on their journey home by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, his office said. Their release comes less than three weeks after another American was freed by Pyongyang.
The two men arrived at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma in Washington state on a Boeing C-40 Clipper aircraft bearing the words “United States of America.”
A smiling Bae left the plane first and in an emotional reunion on the tarmac greeted his mother, sister and other relatives. Miller followed minutes later and also hugged family members. Both men had close-cropped hair.
Bae thanked President Barack Obama and the North Korean government for his freedom.
“It’s been an amazing two years, I learned a lot, I grew a lot, lost a lot of weight – in a good way – but I’m standing strong because of you and thank you for being there in such time as this,” he told reporters.
When asked about his health, Bae, 46, said he was still recovering. His family had expressed concern about his health during his detention, saying he had diabetes, an enlarged heart, deteriorating vision and back and leg pains.
Bae, a missionary from Washington state, was arrested in North Korea in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years hard labor for crimes against the state. Miller, who reportedly was tried on an espionage charge, had been in custody since April this year and was serving a six-year hard labor sentence.
The United States had frequently called for the men to be freed for humanitarian reasons, especially since Bae was said to have health problems.
CNN said the North Korean government had issued a statement about the release, saying it received an “earnest apology” from Obama for the men’s actions. It also said the two were “sincerely repentant of their crimes and (were) behaving themselves while serving their terms.”
According to the statement, the first chairman of North Korea’s National Defense Commission, the country’s leader Kim Jong Un, ordered the release.
North Korea, already under UN sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs, has been on a diplomatic campaign to counter charges by a UN body that highlighted widespread human rights abuses and a move by some UN members to refer the state to an international tribunal. But it was not clear what prompted Pyongyang to free the two men at this time.
Their release did not constitute an opening in relations with North Korea, said a senior State Department official, who declined to be identified. The official said for that to happen, Pyongyang must fulfill its commitments on denuclearisation and human rights.
“He (Clapper) was not there to negotiate. And our position hasn’t changed.”
The men were released just hours before Obama was to start a trip to Asia that will include talks with Chinese leaders about how Beijing can use its influence with North Korea to rein in its nuclear weapons program, US officials have said.