Two Americans who spent months imprisoned in North Korea arrived back on U.S. soil late Saturday, after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ordered their release.
They were freed following a rare visit to the secretive East Asian nation by a top U.S. official, who brought with him a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama.
A plane carrying Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, the last two American citizens known to be held by North Korea, landed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
The two men got off the U.S. government plane — Bae first, then Miller — and walked into the welcoming arms of smiling relatives who were waiting on the tarmac.
“I just want to say thank you all for supporting me and standing by me during this time,” Bae said in brief comments to the media at the base.
He thanked Obama and the State Department for securing his release — and he also had words of gratitude for the country that held him prisoner for two years.
“I’d like to thank the DPRK North Korean government, as well — allowing me to come home and be united with our family,” he said, using an abbreviation for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Asked about concerns about his health during his imprisonment, Bae, 46, said he was “recovering.”
He and Miller were released after James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, went to Pyongyang as an envoy of Obama, a senior State Department official told CNN.
Their release comes less than a month after North Korea freed Jeffrey Fowle, an Ohio man who spent five months in detention. North Korean authorities took Fowle into custody after he left a Bible at a club in the northern part of the country.
Letter from Obama
Clapper delivered a letter from Obama, addressed to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, describing Clapper as “his personal envoy” to bring the Americans home, a senior administration official told CNN on Saturday.
The letter was “short and to the point,” the official said. Clapper did not meet with Kim.
Clapper had no guarantee he would succeed in bringing the Americans home, a senior State Department official told CNN.
The North Korean government 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 ordered the release. The title is one of several top positions that Kim holds in the North Koran hierarchy.
Bae, a Christian missionary who ran a company specializing in tours of North Korea, was accused by Pyongyang of plotting to bring down the government through religious activities. He was detained in late 2012, and in April 2013 was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
On his return to America on Saturday, he thanked the “thousands of people” he said had prayed for him.
“Thank you all for supporting me, lifting me up and not forgetting me,” said Bae, a resident of Lynwood, Washington.
U.S.: No ‘quid pro quo’
China assisted in the monthslong process of arranging the release, the State Department official said.
Clapper’s visit came after North Korea contacted the U.S. government unexpectedly and urged the administration to send a Cabinet-level official to North Korea’s capital to discuss the detained Americans, according to two sources close to the matter.
A U.S. official told CNN that Washington believes Pyongyang reached out to show it had the clout to get a Cabinet-level official to visit and because doing so would help solidify Kim’s power. The request came about two weeks ago, the official said.
Clapper is not a member of Obama’s Cabinet, but he is the U.S. spy chief.
He canceled an event in New York on Wednesday as the trip was being arranged, an Obama administration official said. He went to Pyongyang “prepared to listen” on other issues, but his sole focus was to bring Bae and Miller home, according to the same official.
An official in Clapper’s office said the talks didn’t touch on North Korea’s controversial nuclear program. And other U.S. officials said there was no “quid pro quo” for the men’s release.
Obama expressed appreciation for Clapper’s efforts “on what was obviously a challenging mission” and happiness that Bae and Miller would soon be home.
“It’s a wonderful day for them and their families,” the President said.
‘Hard to believe this day is finally here’
Bae’s sister, Terri Chung, who has long campaigned for his release, said that it was “hard to believe this day is finally here.”
Although Bae is happy to be home, she said he had told her that his “heart aches for the people of North Korea.”
“We know that there are many people in North Korea locked up like Kenneth was, and they remain apart from their families tonight,” she said as she stood beside her brother. “Please do not forget them.”
Earlier Saturday, Chung told CNN that her family spent Saturday morning shedding happy tears and spreading the good news among relatives and friends.
“Words cannot adequately express our relief and gratitude that Kenneth is finally coming home!” the family added later in a full statement. “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.”
Miller family stays quiet
There was no public comment from Miller’s family Saturday, and he didn’t speak to reporters after he got off the plane in Washington state. His family, from Bakersfield, California, had shied away from the media throughout his detention.
Miller, 25, was taken into custody in April of this year, with North Korean authorities accusing him of tearing up his tourist visa and seeking asylum upon entry.
A North Korean court in September convicted him of committing “acts hostile” to North Korea and sentenced him to six years of hard labor.
The country’s state-run media described him as “rudely behaved,” saying he was sent to infiltrate a prison as part of a United States campaign against North Korea.
Former North Korean captive and U.S. journalist Laura Ling said Sunday in a statement that she was “overjoyed” to learn the two men had been released.
“I hope their release is a signal of a potential opening between our two countries and that despite our stark differences we may find a common humanity,” she said.