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The last two Americans imprisoned in North Korea returned home safely Saturday evening, arriving at a U.S. air force base in Washington state.
Kenneth Bae, 46, and Matthew Todd Miller, 25, landed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord at about 9:00 p.m. PST, hours after they were unexpectedly freed from North Korean detainment Saturday morning.
Bae walked off the plane and embraced his mother, leaving with a gathering of relatives, while Miller too embraced his parents on the tarmac.
"I just want to say thank you all for supporting me and lifting me up and not forgetting," Bae said in brief remarks. He said it had been a "tremendously difficult time" for his family and expressed gratitude to President Barack Obama and the State Department for "working tirelessly" for his release.
Bae said he had "learned a lot" during his time in captivity, joking that he had "lost a lot of weight."
His sister Terrie Chung said the family had been "waiting for and praying for this day" for two years.
"My brother is home, all of our hopes and prayers for this moment have finally come true," she said at the brief press conference at the base Saturday night. "This ordeal has been excruciating for the family, but we are filled with joy right now." Miller and his family did not speak at the press conference.
The pair’s release surprised supporters and came during a rare visit by an American official, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, to the notoriously secretive state.
A senior official from the Obama administration insisted that the visit's sole aim was to bring home the Americans — not to pursue any other diplomatic opening, and had been approved by Obama last week.
Clapper undertook the "very unique opportunity" for the visit after the U.S. received "very positive signals" that a trip would result in the release of Bae and Miller, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and said the two released Americans appeared to be in "relatively good condition."
Clapper met with North Korean security officials but did not meet with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, the official added.
“We’re very grateful. I appreciate Director Clapper doing a great job on what was obviously a challenging mission,” President Barack Obama said in brief remarks earlier on Saturday.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing for the men and their families, and obviously we’re very grateful for their safe return,” he added.
Bae’s family launched a desperate public campaign for his release after he was arrested in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for unspecified hostile acts. The 46-year-old was in the country as a tour guide and missionary.
Miller, 25, was arrested in April after he entered North Korea on a tourist visa, then tore up the document and said he wanted asylum instead, according to Pyongyang. State-run media said he was accused of committing hostile acts “under the guise of a tourist,” and was sentenced to six years in prison.
U.S. officials didn’t immediately detail how the men’s release was secured, but the Swedish government had been helping to negotiate with North Korea on behalf of the U.S., which has no diplomatic ties with the totalitarian nation. Clapper accompanied Bae and Miller during their return home to their families, officials said in a statement. “We want to thank our international partners, especially our Protecting Power, the Government of Sweden, for their tireless efforts to help secure their release,” said National Intelligence spokesman Brian Hale.
The Swedish Embassy also assisted in securing the release of another American detainee in North Korea, Jeffrey Fowle, who was brought home to Ohio last month. Fowle, a tourist, had been arrested in May and was accused of leaving a Bible at a hotel where he was staying.
“The United States has long called on DPRK authorities to release these individuals on humanitarian grounds,” U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Saturday. “We join their families and friends in welcoming them home.”