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Two Americans freed by North Korea, returning home -U.S. officials


WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea has freed two U.S. citizens, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, who are returning home after spending months in detention in the secretive Asian state, the U.S. government said on Saturday.

Bae and Miller were being accompanied back to the United States by James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, his office said. Their release comes less than three weeks after another American was freed by Pyongyang.

Bae, a missionary from Washington state, was arrested in North Korea in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years hard labor for crimes against the state. Miller, who reportedly was tried on an espionage charge, had been in custody since April this year and sentenced to six years of hard labor.

“It’s a wonderful day for them and their families,” President Barack Obama said at the White House. “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.”

The United States had frequently called for the men to be freed for humanitarian reasons, especially since Bae was said to have health problems.

Clapper’s role in their release was unexpected and his trip to North Korea had been kept secret. The U.S. government gave no other details about how he became involved in the case.

The release came just hours before Obama was set to travel to Asia for a trip that will include talks with Chinese leaders about how Beijing can use its influence with North Korea to rein in its nuclear program, U.S. officials have said.

Bae’s delighted son, Jonathan, told Reuters from Arizona that he received a call Friday night and spoke to his father. “The brief time on the phone, he sounded good,” Jonathan said. “I’m sure he will be back to his old self in no time.

“It came out of the blue. One minute he was doing farm labor and the next minute they are saying, ‘You are going home.’ Just like everyone else, he was surprised.”

HUMAN RIGHTS

The U.S. State Department issued a statement thanking Sweden for its part in the release of Bae and Miller. Sweden serves as a diplomatic intermediary for the United States in North Korea because Washington has no diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.

North Korea has been on a diplomatic campaign to counter charges by a U.N. body that highlighted widespread human rights abuses and a move by some U.N. members to refer the state to an international tribunal.

“North Korean policy continues to zig-zag,” said Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the University of California in San Diego.

“After pursuing a charm offensive aimed at restarting North-South talks and even a human rights dialogue, North Korea shut those initiatives down following the tabling of a strongly worded human rights resolution at the U.N. General Assembly. But the release of Miller and Bae suggests an effort to keep channels for dialogue open.”

In late October, North Korea freed Jeffrey Fowle, 56, a street repair worker from Miamisburg, Ohio, who was arrested in May for leaving a Bible in a sailor’s club in the North Korean city of Chongjin, where he was traveling as a tourist.

In September, Pyongyang allowed Bae, Miller and Fowle to be interviewed by CNN and the Associated Press. The men said they were being treated humanely and appealed to Washington to push for their release. The interview was seen as a sign North Korea was looking for a way to open dialogue with the United States.

Miller, of Bakersfield, California, and said to be in his mid-20s, had gone to North Korea on a tourist visa, which state media said he tore up while demanding Pyongyang grant him asylum. He was traveling without foreign guides, according to Uri Tours, the company that organized the trip.

The Associated Press reported Miller was tried on an espionage charge and prosecutors at his trial said he had falsely claimed to have secret information about the U.S. military stationed in South Korea.

On Monday, Bae’s family had marked the second anniversary of his detention by releasing a statement asking for renewed efforts by the United States and for mercy from North Korea.

The family said on its website that Bae had been operating out of China since 2006 and had led more than a dozen tours of North Korea. They said his health problems included diabetes, an enlarged heart, deteriorating vision and back and leg pains.

Despite North Korea’s poor record on human rights and stand against religion, tourism to the isolated country has increased markedly in recent years, with some tour operators estimating a tenfold increase in Western visitors in the past decade.

(Writing by Bill Trott; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and James Pearson in Seoul; Editing by Frances Kerry and Crispian Balmer)

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