JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — The last two Americans being held captive by North Korea have returned home.
Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller landed Saturday night at a Washington state military base after their departure from the reclusive Communist country was secured through a secret mission by the top U.S. intelligence official.
Bae, surrounded by family members, spoke briefly to the media after the plane carrying him and Miller landed about 9 p.m.
“I just want to say thank you all for supporting me and standing by me,” he said.
He thanked President Barack Obama and the many people who supported him and his family. He also thanked the North Korean government for releasing him.
“It’s been an amazing two years, I learned a lot, I grew a lot, I lost a lot of weight,” said Bae, a Korean-American missionary with health problems. Asked how he was feeling, he said: “I’m recovering at this time.”
His family has said he suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain.
U.S. officials said Miller of Bakersfield, California, and Bae of Lynnwood, Washington, flew back with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence. Clapper was the highest-ranking American to visit Pyongyang in more than a decade.
Members of Bae’s family, who live near the sprawling military base south of Seattle, met him when he landed. His mother hugged him after he got off the plane. Miller stepped off the U.S. government aircraft a short time later and was also greeted with hugs
Their release 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 U.S. has shifted back and forth from defiance to occasional conciliation.
“It’s a wonderful day for them and their families,” President Barack Obama said at the White House following his announcement of his pick for attorney general. “Obviously we are very grateful for their safe return.”
A senior Obama administration official said the president approved the mission last week and U.S. officials spent the next several days planning the trip. Clapper spent roughly a day on the ground and met with North Korean security officials – but not with Kim, the official said aboard Air Force One as Obama prepared to head to Beijing.
Clapper went with the sole purpose of bringing home the two detainees, although the U.S. anticipated that other issues of concern to the North would come up during Clapper’s discussions on the ground, the official said. “It was not to pursue any other diplomatic opening,” said the official, who wasn’t authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity.
The U.S. had considered sending someone from outside government to retrieve the detainees, the official said, but suggested Clapper after the North Koreans indicated in recent weeks that they would release the detainees if the U.S. sent a high-level official from Obama’s administration. He said the U.S. settled on Clapper because of his role as a security official, rather than a diplomat.
Analysts who study North Korea said the decision to free Bae and Miller now from long prison terms probably was a bid by that country to ease pressure in connection with its human rights record. A recent U.N. report documented rape, torture, executions and forced labor 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.
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now at the Heritage Foundation, agreed that efforts to shine a spotlight on the country’s human rights record “startled the regime and led to frantic attempts to derail the process.”
Bae and Miller were the last Americans held by North Korea.
Bae 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.
Terri Chung, Bae’s sister, said at the Saturday night news conference that after her brother got off the plane, he told her, “I am so happy to be here, but my heart aches for the people of North Korea.”
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 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 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.”
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 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 George W. Bush administration, said Clapper was the most senior U.S. official to visit North Korea since then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went in 2000 and met with Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father.
The U.S. and North Korea do not have formal ties, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended without a peace treaty.
After being reunited with her brother, Chung urged that the North Korean people not be forgotten.
Chung said by giving tours in the country, Bae was “able to connect people from the outside world to the people and beauty of North Korea.”
“To us, North Korea seems like a strange place,” she told reporters. “Don’t allow that to make that a reason to forget the people of that country.”
AP writers Josh Lederman, Matthew Pennington, AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee, White House Correspondent Julie Pace, Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler, AP National Security Writer Lara Jakes in Muscat, Oman, AP writer and AP writer John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, contributed to this report.