Pair jailed by N-Korea back in US
Two Americans released from captivity in North Korea returned to the United States today, landing at a Washington state military base.
Their departure was secured through a secret mission by America's intelligence chief to the reclusive communist country.
Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae flew back to Joint Base Lewis-McChord with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.
Mr 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," Mr Bae told reporters. He thanked the North Korean government for letting him come home.
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 US has shifted back and forth from defiance to occasional conciliation. And it was an unusual role for Mr Clapper, a retired general who does not typically do diplomacy.
"It's a wonderful day for them and their families," President Barack Obama said at the White House earlier. "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."
US officials did not immediately provide details about the circumstances of the Americans' release, including whether Mr Clapper met Kim or other senior North Korean officials. They said the timing was not related to Mr Obama's imminent trip to China, Burma and Australia.
A senior administration official said Mr Clapper carried a brief message from Mr Obama indicating that Mr Clapper was his personal envoy to bring the two Americans home.
Analysts who study North Korea said the decision to free Mr Bae and Mr Miller from long prison terms was probably a bid by that country to ease pressure in connection with its human rights record.
A recent United Nations 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.
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 US," she said.
Mr Bae and Mr Miller were the last Americans held by North Korea.
Mr 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.
His sister Terri Chung said she received word from the State Department yesterday that Mr Bae and Mr 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," she said.
Mr 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 Mr 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.
Mr Fowle said his fellow Americans' release was "an answer to a prayer" and initially thought they had been released with him last month. "I didn't realise they weren't released with me until I got on the plane," he said.
Mr Bae and Mr Miller said that they believed their only chance of release was the intervention of a high-ranking government official or a senior US statesman. Previously, former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter had gone to North Korea on separate occasions to take detainees home.
Victor Cha, a North Korea expert and former national security official in the Bush administration, said Mr Clapper was the most senior US official to visit North Korea since then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright went in 2000 and met Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un's father.
Mr Cha said sending Mr Clapper would have satisfied North Korea's desire for a cabinet-level visitor, while avoiding some of the diplomatic baggage of dispatching a regular US government official.
The US 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 US posture regarding North Korea's disputed nuclear programme, the main source of tension between Pyongyang and Washington, said a senior administration official.
International aid-for-disarmament talks have been stalled since 2008. The last concerted US effort to restart those negotiations collapsed in spring 2012.
The US notified allies of Mr Clapper's trip to North Korea and alerted members of the congressional leadership once his visit was under way, the official said.