MANUEL VALDES and KEN DILANIAN | AP | 11/09/14 12:28 AM ET
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. (AP) — Two Americans released from captivity in North Korea returned to the United States Saturday night, landing at a Washington state military base after their departure was secured through a secret mission to the reclusive Communist country by the top U.S. intelligence official.
Matthew Miller of Bakersfield, California, and Kenneth Bae of Lynnwood, Washington, arrived at Joint Base Lewis-McChord around 9 p.m. PST. U.S. officials said the pair flew back with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence.
Bae, surrounded by family members, spoke briefly to the media after the plane carrying him and Miller landed.
"I just want to say thank you all for supporting me and standing by me," he said.
He thanked President Barack Obama and the many people who supported him and his family. He also thanked the North Korean government for releasing him.
"It's been an amazing two years, I learned a lot, I grew a lot, I lost a lot of weight," said Bae, a Korean-American missionary with health problems. Asked how he was feeling, he said: "I'm recovering at this time."
His family has said he suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain,
Members of Bae's family, who live near the sprawling military base south of Seattle, met him when he landed. His mother hugged him after he got off the plane. Miller stepped off the U.S. government aircraft a short time later and was also greeted with hugs.
Their release 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 U.S. has shifted back and forth from defiance to occasional conciliation. And it was an anomalous role for Clapper, an acerbic retired general who doesn't typically do diplomacy.
"It's a wonderful day for them and their families," Obama said at the White House following his announcement of his pick for attorney general. "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."
A senior Obama administration official said the president approved the mission last week and U.S. officials spent the next several days planning the trip. Clapper spent roughly a day on the ground and met with North Korean security officials — but not with Kim, the official said aboard Air Force One as Obama prepared to head to Beijing.
Clapper went with the sole purpose of bringing home the two detainees, although the U.S. anticipated that other issues of concern to the North would come up during Clapper's discussions on the ground, the official said. "It was not to pursue any other diplomatic opening," said the official, who wasn't authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity.
The U.S. had considered sending someone from outside government to retrieve the detainees, the official said, but suggested Clapper after the North Koreans indicated in recent weeks that they would release the detainees if the U.S. sent a high-level official from Obama's administration. He said the U.S. settled on Clapper because of his role as a security official, rather than a diplomat
Analysts who study North Korea said the decision to free Bae and Miller now from long prison terms probably was a bid by that country to ease pressure in connection with its human rights record. A recent U.N. report documented rape, torture, executions and forced labor 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.
"Their release has been our focus every single day and we've been working all the angles available to bring them home," Secretary of State John Kerry said from Oman on Saturday.
Bae 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.
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 of Miamisburg, Ohio, 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.
Joseph DeTrani, the former North Korea mission manager for the DNI, said the releases are a hopeful sign that North Korea "wants to come out of the penalty box."
"The North Koreans want to come back to negotiations," said DeTrani, who leads an intelligence contractor trade group. "They are going through a bad patch. The last two years have been a disaster. They are more and more of an isolated state."
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. government official. The U.S. 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 U.S. posture regarding North Korea's disputed nuclear program, 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 U.S. effort to restart those negotiations collapsed in spring 2012.
The U.S. notified allies of Clapper's trip to North Korea and alerted members of the congressional leadership once his visit was underway, the official said.