WASHINGTON – The U.S. on Saturday announced the release of the two Americans in North Korean custody after a secret trip to the reclusive communist country by President Barack Obama’s national intelligence director.
“It’s a wonderful day for them and their families,” Obama said at the White House following his announcement of his pick for attorney general. “Obviously we are very grateful for their safe return.”
Matthew Miller of Bakersfield, California, and Kenneth Bae of Lynnwood, Washington, were accompanying James Clapper, the intelligence chief, back to the United States.
Miller was serving a six-year jail term on charges of espionage after he allegedly ripped his tourist visa at Pyongyang’s airport in April and demanded asylum. North Korea said Miller had wanted to experience prison life so that he could secretly investigate North Korea’s human rights situation.
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.
U.S. officials did not immediately provide other details about the circumstances of the Americans’ release or when they would return home.
Administration officials said the timing of the release was not related to President Barack Obama’s imminent trip to China, Myanmar and Australia.
Clapper traveled to North Korea as a presidential envoy, officials said, and apparently is the highest-ranking administration official to visit Pyongyang.
Obama said he Clapper was “doing a great job on what was obviously a challenging mission.”
Bae and Miller were the last Americans held by North Korea following the release last month of Jeffrey Fowle of Miamisburg, Ohio, 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.
Fowle said his fellow Americans’ release is “an answer to a prayer.” He said he initially thought Bae and Miller had been released with him last month. “I didn’t realize they weren’t released with me until I got on the plane,” he said.
Bae and Miller had told The Associated Press that they believed their only chance of release was the intervention of a high-ranking government official or a senior U.S. statesman. Previously, former Vice President Al Gore and former President Jimmy Carter had gone to North Korea to take detainees home.
The development does not mean a change in U.S. posture regarding North Korea’s disputed nuclear program, and the North still must show it is serious and ready to abide by commitments toward denuclearization and improved human rights, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss national security matters.
The official said there was no quid pro quo involved in the Americans’ release.
The U.S. notified allies of Clapper’s trip to North Korea and alerted members of the congressional leadership once his visit was underway, the official said.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee, AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace and Associated Press writer John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this report.