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The families of two American men who had been detained in North Korea will soon celebrate their safe return — after many months of wondering if that day would ever come.
Kenneth Bae, 46, and Matthew Todd Miller, 25, were unexpectedly freed from North Korean detainment Saturday. They were traveling back to the United States in the company of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who President Barack Obama said helped to facilitate their release.
“It’s a wonderful day for them and their families,” Obama said at the White House on Saturday.
“Words cannot adequately express our relief and gratitude that Kenneth is finally coming home! We have been waiting for and praying for this day for two years,” Terri Chung, Bae's Sister, said in a statement Saturday. “Our Thanksgiving celebration this year will be one we will never forget.”
Bae and Miller were the only two Americans detained in North Korea following the release of Ohio father of three Jeffrey Fowle last month. Fowle, 56, had been detained for six months after leaving a Bible at a club for sailors.
Bae had been detained almost two years to the date before his release. The missionary and business owner was charged with “hostile acts” against the North Korean government, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
According to a family-run “Free Kenneth Bae” website, Bae started a China-based tour company in 2006 to be “a personal touch-point of compassionate humanity to the North Korean people.”
“Kenneth is the guy who always does the right thing, no matter the cost,” the biography said, adding that Bae, who called Lynnwood, Washington, home, dropped out of college early in order to work two jobs to support his family.
But Bae wasn’t all serious all the time, according to the biography, which describes a man who could pull off an Elvis impersonation and “loved to rock the 'Miami Vice look,' the white blazer with the sleeves pushed up and gelled hairstyle.”
Bae suffers from diabetes, heart problems and back pain, according to his son, Jonathan. After seeing a video of Bae at a labor camp, which had taken a “toll on his health,” his family appealed to Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 to “pursue every course of possible action,” to bring Bae home.
Bae was hospitalized in 2013, but reassigned to a labor camp in early 2014, according to the U.S. State Department. At the time, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, the U.S. was working “actively to secure Mr. Bae's release.”
“Our Thanksgiving celebration this year will be one we will never forget.”
In early 2014, North Korea, for the second time, withdrew an invitation for a U.S. envoy to visit the capital of Pyongyang to discuss Bae’s release.
“This ordeal has been excruciating for the family, but we are filled with joy right now,” Chung said Saturday.
Matthew Todd Miller
Miller’s family has been less vocal about his April detainment, which North Korean state media said stemmed from him tearing up his tourist visa. Miller was taken into custody “on claims of seeking asylum,” according to a statement from Uri Tours, the company with which he was traveling at the time.
“He committed acts hostile to the DPRK (North Korea) ... under the guise of a tourist last April,” North Korean state media said when he was sentenced to six years of hard labor in September.
After his sentencing, state media released more details about Miller’s alleged offenses, saying he was arrested in an attempt to meet Bae and investigate conditions in North Korean prisons. “He perpetrated the above-said acts in the hope of becoming a ‘world famous guy’ and the ‘second Snowden’ through intentional hooliganism,” Korean Central News Agency said in late September.
North Korea allowed an Associated Press journalist to have access to Miller in September. Before the interview he displayed several letters he had written to prominent Americans, including first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, pleading for them to intervene for his release, according to the AP.
“Prison life is eight hours of work per day,” Miller said in the time-restricted interview with the AP.
“Other than that, it's isolation, no contact with anyone. But I have been in good health, and no sickness or no hurts,” he said in the interview, which the AP said was closely monitored by North Korean officials.
In a Sept. 1 interview with CNN, which was also monitored and recorded by North Korean officials, Miller said, “I deliberately committed my crime.” He added in the interview that he had apologized to the North Korean government, and had been requesting help from the U.S. for a “long time,” but was “disappointed” by a lack of a response. Fowle, the American released from North Korea in October, told NBC News on Saturday that interviews with American media were “scripted to some extent.”
Fowle said he was told Bae and Miller were in the same building with him during the interviews, but he never saw them. “I never had any contact with them at any time,” Fowle said, but now that Bae and Miller are returning home, “if they’d like to meet me, I’m available.”
He had hoped Bae and Miller may be accompanying him when he was transported back to the U.S. on Oct. 22, but was told he had been the only American released. “That was a downer at the time,” Fowle said.
But now, Fowle said, he’s “very happy for them and their families.”
Administration officials told the AP that the timing of the release is not related to Obama’s upcoming trip to China, Myanmar and Australia.
Further details regarding what led to Clapper’s trip and North Korea’s decision to free Bae and Miller have not been disclosed.