Americans Bae and Miller, freed by North Korea, back in U.S.

Written By kolimtiga on Minggu, 09 November 2014 | 12.56

Two Americans detained in North Korea were freed and brought home to the United States on Saturday, the result of a surprising move by the reclusive nation that may signal a shift in its approach to the United States.

The men — Matthew Todd Miller, 25, of Bakersfield, arrested in April, and Kenneth Bae, 46, of Lynnwood, Wash., held since 2012 — landed Saturday night at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash., accompanied by James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

 "We're very grateful for their safe return," President Obama said at the White House, thanking Clapper for succeeding in "a challenging mission" to help bring about the release of the men.

The sudden announcement came hours before Obama was to head to Asia for a weeklong trip, starting with a stop in China, North Korea's most important ally.

The U.S. has no direct diplomatic relations with North Korea. Sending Clapper, the nation's top intelligence official, on a secret mission to the country was highly unusual. He had been scheduled to speak at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday in New York, but the appearance was abruptly canceled.

The North Koreans apparently had rejected unofficial envoys who had sought to intervene for the Americans. In 2009, President Clinton made a secret trip for the release of American women held there.

The demand by the government in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, for a high-level representative was perhaps to provide an opportunity for relaying a message to Washington.

"As a sitting government official, it's entirely plausible to imagine that if the North Koreans chose to send other messages, he would be capable of transmitting them," Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said of Clapper.

"But in no way does that signal on the U.S. side that the U.S. will begin to engage in a broader dialogue," Snyder said.

The North Koreans have come under enormous pressure over a report circulating at the United Nations on alleged human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the tightly closed country, Snyder said. They have engaged in an "unprecedented" mobilization in recent weeks to tamp down further consideration of the report by international officials, and the release of the Americans appears to be a continuation of that.

"The United States has long called on [North Korean] authorities to release these individuals on humanitarian grounds," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "We join their families and friends in welcoming them home."

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, recently appeared in public for the first time in weeks after apparently suffering a medical ailment. Shortly after he resurfaced, another detained American, Jeffrey Fowle, was released, renewing hope that Bae and Miller would be freed as well.

The two American men had been detained in North Korea under different circumstances, though both cases point to the nation's sensitivity to threats to its authority.

Bae, an American evangelist, was arrested and charged with "hostile acts against the state" in 2012 in the North Korean city of Rason. He was serving a 15-year hard labor sentence, and U.S. officials were concerned about his health. He was transferred this year from a hospital to a prison labor camp.

Bae's sister, Terri Chung, said in a statement Saturday that she was contacted by the State Department early in the day and told that her brother and Miller had just left North Korean airspace and were heading to the United States.

"I am thrilled to imagine hugging my brother soon. He will not have to spend another day at a labor camp," she said. "He can now recover from this imprisonment and look forward to his wife, kids and rest of his life. Our Thanksgiving celebration this year will be one we will never forget."

Miller was sentenced in September to six years of hard labor after acknowledging that he had ripped up his tourist visa when he entered the country at the Pyongyang airport in April.

North Korea's state-run news agency said last month that Miller had been a student in Seoul, the South Korean capital, and deliberately sought to get arrested in the North as part of an elaborate plan to meet another American imprisoned in the country, negotiate for his release and ultimately expose "the human rights situation" in the country.

The state news agency's accounts, which were not independently verified, suggested that Miller had written that he sought to disclose information "like Snowden," referring to former U.S. government contractor Edward Snowden, who exposed details of secret U.S. surveillance programs last year.

But in another account, Reuters reported last month that Miller had told people in Seoul that he was a British citizen working on an anime adaptation of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland," and that he appeared "awkward" and "mysterious."

Miller's family has not spoken publicly about his situation. Those who knew him growing up in California's Central Valley have said he seemed to be a typical child.

The two men were the last Americans known to be detained in North Korea. Previous efforts to free them had failed, making their release something of a surprise.

The administration's foreign policy critics on Capitol Hill were slow Saturday to weigh in on the release as news of the circumstances trickled out of the unannounced mission.

For the Obama administration, "it was probably the least unsatisfactory option for securing the release of these individuals," Snyder said. "If this is what it takes to get these people out, they're holding their nose and doing it."

Times staff writer Javier Panzar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

9:13 p.m.: This post was updated with their arrival in the U.S.

8:34 p.m.: This post has been updated throughout.

11:20 a.m.: This post has been updated with a statement from Kenneth Bae's sister.

9:12 a.m. This post has been updated with details about the detained Americans and comments from President Obama and the State Department.

This post was originally published at 7:33 a.m. PST.

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