US men freed from North Korea in secret mission

2014-11-09 12:20
Kenneth Bae, who had been held in North Korea since 2012, smiles as he talks to reporters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, after he was freed during a top-secret mission. (Ted S Warren, AP)

Kenneth Bae, who had been held in North Korea since 2012, smiles as he talks to reporters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, after he was freed during a top-secret mission. (Ted S Warren, AP)

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Washington - Two Americans released from captivity in North Korea returned to the United States late on Saturday after their departure was secured through a secret mission by the top US intelligence official to the reclusive nation.

Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae arrived at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. US officials said the pair flew back with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.

Clapper was the highest-ranking American to visit Pyongyang in more than a decade.

Family members met both men with hugs as they emerged from their plane.

It 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 US has shifted back and forth from defiance to occasional conciliation.

A wonderful day

And it was an unusual role for Clapper, a retired general who doesn't typically do diplomacy.

"It's a wonderful day for them and their families," President Barack Obama said at the White House earlier on Saturday.

"Obviously we are very grateful for their safe return. And I appreciate Director Clapper doing a great job on what was obviously a challenging mission."

US officials did not immediately provide details about the circumstances of the Americans' release, including whether Clapper met with Kim or other senior North Korean officials. They said the timing was not related to Obama's imminent trip to China, Myanmar and Australia.

A senior administration official said Clapper carried a brief message from Obama indicating that Clapper was his personal envoy to bring the two Americans home. The official spoke on a condition of anonymity without authorisation to speak on the record.

Analysts who study North Korea said the decision to free Bae and Miller from long prison terms probably was a bid by that country to ease pressure in connection with its human rights record.

A recent UN report documented rape, torture, executions and forced labour 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.

"This human rights thing is showing itself to be an unexpected leverage for the US," she said.

Bae and Miller were the last Americans held by North Korea.

‘An excruciating ordeal’

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.

Terri Chung, Bae's sister, said she received word from the State Department on Saturday morning that Bae and Miller were on a plane that had left North Korean airspace.

"We have been waiting for and praying for this day for two years. This ordeal has been excruciating for the family, but we are filled with joy right now," Chung said in an emailed statement.

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, 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 realise they weren't released with me until I got on the plane," he said.

Diplomatic baggage

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 US 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 US 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.

Cha said sending Clapper would have satisfied North Korea's desire for a Cabinet-level visitor, while avoiding some of the diplomatic baggage of dispatching a regular US government official.

The US and North Korea do not have formal ties, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended without a peace treaty.

The detainee releases do not herald a change in US posture regarding North Korea's disputed nuclear programme, the main source of tension between Pyongyang and Washington, said a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss national security matters.

International aid-for-disarmament talks have been stalled since 2008. The last concerted US
 effort to restart those negotiations collapsed in spring 2012.

The US notified allies of Clapper's trip to North Korea and alerted members of the congressional leadership once his visit was underway, the official said.

Read more on:    us  |  north korea

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