North Korea Releases Americans Matthew Todd Miller And Kenneth Bae – Wall Street Journal

Two Americans returned to the U.S. late Saturday after being freed unexpectedly by North Korea, removing a source of tension between Washington and Pyongyang but leaving open Questions about the North’s motives and whether the action marks a broader shift in policy for the country.

The U.S. State Department confirmed on Saturday that North Korea had freed

Kenneth Bae,

a Korean-American missionary who had been detained in North Korea for more than two years, and Matthew Todd Miller, a 24-year-old from California who was arrested this spring after arriving on a private tour of the country. Both had been sentenced to hard labor.

The men were picked up by

James Clapper,

the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, who negotiated their release, according to a spokesman for Mr. Clapper.

Messers. Bae and Miller returned to the U.S. aboard a government plane that landed late Saturday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Both men were greeted by relatives, and Mr. Bae briefly addressed reporters at an impromptu news conference, thanking supporters and the U.S. government for “not forgetting me, and at the same time not forgetting the people of North Korea.”

“It’s been an amazing two years,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot, I grew a lot, lost a lot of weight, in a good way. But I’m standing strong, because of you.” Responding to a question about concern expressed by relatives and government officials over his health, Mr. Bae said he was “recovering at this time.”

Mr. Clapper flew to North Korea to secure the release of the two Americans as an envoy of President


Barack Obama
,

a senior State Department official said. The U.S. didn’t give North Korea anything to secure the Americans’ release, the official said.

However, the arrangements made clear Mr. Obama’s personal role in the release, which may have been a condition sought by Pyongyang. Mr. Clapper carried a brief message from the president to Kim Jong Un indicating that the intelligence director was Mr. Obama’s personal envoy to bring Messrs. Bae and Miller back to America, the senior State Department official said. Messrs. Clapper and Kim didn’t meet directly.

Kenneth Bae, left, reunites with his family Saturday at U.S. Air Force Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Fort Lewis, Wash.
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Kenneth Bae

Kenneth Bae, a 46-year-old Korean American from Washington state, was detained during a trip to the Rason area of North Korea, in the northeastern region that borders China and Russia. Mr. Bae, a Christian missionary and tour operator, was detained in early November 2012 and, months later, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for committing what were described as “hostile acts” against the North Korean government.

Mr. Bae was initially put in a labor camp, but his ailing health – in one interview, he said he had lost significant weight – led the North to move Mr. Bae to a hospital last August. However, after signs of an improvement in his health, he was apparently transferred back to the labor camp.

During an interview with CNN in September, Mr. Bae said he had not been aware of any crime at the time but that he had since apologized for them.

As Mr. Clapper was making the trip, the U.S. notified “key allies and partners” so they would know the purpose of his travel was to obtain the safe release of American citizens, the official said. The State Department also notified the U.S. congressional leadership of Mr. Clapper’s travel to North Korea once his trip was under way, the official said.

Mr. Obama applauded the release of the Americans on Saturday during a White House announcement of his nomination of Loretta Lynch for the post of U.S. Attorney General. “It’s a wonderful day for them and their families,” he said, commending Mr. Clapper for carrying out “a challenging mission.”

Mr. Bae’s family and friends in a statement thanked both the U.S. government and the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which acted as the U.S. prisoner’s liaison to the outside world. Relatives also said they were grateful to the North Korean government for allowing the Americans’ release.

“Our Thanksgiving celebration this year will be one we will never forget,” the family’s statement said.

The rescue effort comes just weeks after Pyongyang freed 56-year-old Jeffrey Fowle, an Ohio street maintenance worker, after what the North described as a personal appeal from Mr. Obama. The U.S. said at the time that it didn’t make any deal with the North.

The unexpected moves come after months of frustration with the North, which had resisted efforts to free the three U.S. men. Mr. Bae, who was first detained in late 2012, was sent to a labor camp before the North moved him to a hospital, in response to his ailing health.

While the U.S. didn’t offer any explanation for the North’s apparent change of heart, cash-strapped Pyongyang has been feeling pressure from the international community in recent months, as some member states of the United Nations weighed the possibility of trying to refer the North to the International Criminal Court.

Matthew Miller, who had been held in North Korea since April, is greeted after arriving Saturday at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
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Matthew Todd Miller

Matthew Todd Miller, a 24-year-old from Bakersfield, Calif., was arrested in April after entering North Korea on a privately-organized tour. According to North Korea’s state media, Mr. Miller ripped up his visa when he arrived in Pyongyang and said that he was seeking asylum. Instead, the North imprisoned him and sentenced him to six years of hard labor, saying that he wanted to become a “second Snowden” by investigating North Korea’s prison system — a reference to Edward Snowden, the U.S. intelligence contractor who became a fugitive after leaking classified government documents.

Mr. Miller, who during a September television interview, said that he was being treated humanely but was being kept in isolation. Mr. Miller’s family has not issued any public statements on his imprisonment, but a Reuters report found that Mr. Miller, whose brother was serving in the U.S. military, based in South Korea, may have sparked his fascination with the country. Mr. Miller came to South Korea and taught English, before seeking to travel to the North.

In response, the North has released its own human-rights report and ramped up its attacks on outside criticism of its human-rights situation. In February, a specially convened U.N. commission of inquiry published a 400-page report detailing allegations of Pyongyang’s widespread rights abuses, which include operating a system of prison and labor camps.

The senior State Department official said that the developments don’t represent an opening in the relationship or a change in the U.S. view of North Korea’s advancing nuclear-weapons program. While the U.S. welcomes the release of Messrs. Bae and Miller, North Korea still must take steps to demonstrate it’s prepared to abide by commitments to denuclearization and improving human rights, the official said.

Mr. Bae had been held in North Korea for two years, and Mr. Miller was arrested in April.

Mr. Miller, a native of Bakersfield, Calif., was serving a six-year prison sentence on charges of espionage, after allegedly ripping up his tourist visa at the airport in Pyongyang in April and requesting asylum. North Korea said Mr. Miller wanted to experience prison life to secretly investigate North Korea’s human rights climate.

Mr. Bae, from Lynwood, Wash., is a Korean-American missionary who was imprisoned in North Korea for crimes against the state. He was detained in 2012 while leading a tour group and U.S. officials were concerned about his declining health. Both men were sentenced to hard labor.

North Korea earlier released Mr. Fowle, who returned home on Oct. 22. He hadn’t been sentenced, but faced charges of attempting to commit “hostile acts” against North Korea after he was caught leaving a Bible in a bathroom at a bar in Chongjin.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week, Mr. Fowle said he intentionally left the Bible behind to try to help North Korea’s underground Christian community.

—Colleen McCain Nelson and Tamara Audi contributed to this article.

Write to Felicia Schwartz at felicia.schwartz@wsj.com and Jonathan Cheng at jonathan.cheng@wsj.com

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