North Korea has freed two Americans after detaining them for up to two years, the United States announced Saturday, in a release negotiated in Pyongyang by a top U.S. intelligence official who is accompanying the duo home, officials said.
The release of Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary from Washington state, and Matthew Todd Miller, from California, was secured by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, after a secret mission to North Korea.
U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the release of the two men, just hours before leaving for a swing through Asia.
"It's a wonderful day for them and their families," Obama said at the White House, adding that Washington was "very grateful for their safe return" and appreciated Clapper "doing a great job on what was obviously a challenging mission."
Their freedom came following the release of a third American, Jeffrey Fowle, by Pyongyang in late October after being imprisoned apparently for leaving behind a Bible in a nightclub bathroom.
Bae was held in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for alleged crimes against the state while Miller, accused of espionage, had been in custody since April and sentenced to six years of hard labor.
The United States has been calling for their release on humanitarian grounds. Bae, 42, was said to be in poor health.
"We can confirm that U.S. citizens Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller have been allowed to depart the DPRK [North Korea] and are on their way home, accompanied by DNI Clapper, to re-join their families," Brian Hale, spokesman for Clapper's office, said in a statement.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said separately that the safety and welfare of U.S. citizens abroad was the department's "highest priority," noting that Washington had long called on Pyongyang to release them.
The State Department however strongly advised against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea, which had been accused of holding the three Americans as political hostages to extract diplomatic concessions.
The State Department told CNN that Clapper, who visited Pyongyang as Obama's envoy, did not make a ”quid pro quo” offer for the men’s release.
North Korea is anxious to revive six-party aid-for-denuclearization talks with the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, but Washington wants Pyongyang to first show a tangible commitment to denuclearization.
"North Korea knows what it needs to do if it wants a better relationship with the international community and wants to end its isolation and pariah status," the official told Agence France-Presse.
"North Korea must show it is serious and prepared to abide by its commitments, particularly concerning denuclearization. And they must take significant steps to improve their human rights record."
The European Union and Japan this week presented a United Nations resolution calling for a probe of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime for crimes against humanity.
The resolution was sent to a U.N. General Assembly committee despite a diplomatic campaign by North Korea to have key provisions removed, including one that urged the Security Council to refer Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court.
Bae's delighted son, Jonathan, told Reuters news agency from Arizona that he received a call late Friday and spoke to his father.
"The brief time on the phone, he sounded good," Jonathan said. "I'm sure he will be back to his old self in no time.
"It came out of the blue. One minute he was doing farm labor and the next minute they are saying, 'You are going home.' Just like everyone else, he was surprised."
Rick Larsen, a U.S. lawmaker from Washington state where Bae's family lives, said Bae's release was "fantastic news for the whole Bae family, after two years of uncertainty and pain."
"I am so happy for Kenneth and his family that he is free and headed for a reunion with his loved ones, and that he will be able to get the medical attention he needs," Congressman Larsen said.
U.S. Senator Patty Murray, also from Washington state, said Bae's sister Terri Chung, in particular, has made it her personal mission to bring her brother back and "her powerful voice and hard work truly helped make this day possible."
"This is a great day for Kenneth’s family, friends, and all of us in Washington state who have worked, hoped, and prayed for Kenneth’s return over the last two years.”
Chung said in a statement that her family heard from the State Department that her brother was on a plane from North Korea with Miller. "They had left North Korean airspace, bound for America."
"I am thrilled to imagine hugging my brother soon. He will not have to spend another day at a labor camp. 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."
Reported by RFA's Korean Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.