2 Americans held in North Korea whisked back home

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Americans in North Korea - Kenneth Bae - Matthew Miller
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2 Americans held in North Korea whisked back home
Kenneth Bae, center, who had been held in North Korea since 2012, is hugged after arriving Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., after they were freed during a top-secret mission. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Kenneth Bae, left, who had been held in North Korea since 2012, hugs his mother Myunghee Bae after arriving, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., after they were freed during a top-secret mission by James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Matthew Miller, left, who had been held in North Korea since April, 2014, is greeted after arriving Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., after he were freed during a top-secret mission. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Kenneth Bae, right, who had been held in North Korea since 2012, talks to reporters after he arrived Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., after he was freed during a top-secret mission. At left is his sister Terri Chung. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
In this image taken from video, U.S. citizen Matthew Todd Miller speaks at an undisclosed location in North Korea Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. Two Americans, Miller and Jeffrey Edward Fowle, charged with “anti-state” crimes in North Korea say in a video that they expect to be tried soon and possibly receive long prison terms, and appeal for help from the U.S. government. They made the comments in the video shot by a local AP Television News crew. The crew was taken to a location to meet the detained Americans after repeated requests to North Korean authorities to see them. (AP Photo/APTN)
Kenneth Bae, right, who had been held in North Korea since 2012, talks to reporters after he arrived Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., after he was freed during a top-secret mission. Looking on from left are Bae's brother-in-law Andrew Chung, his mother, Myunghee Bae, and his sister, Terri Chung. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Kenneth Bae, who had been held in North Korea since 2012, smiles as he talks to reporters Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., after he was freed during a top-secret mission. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Kenneth Bae, center, who had been held in North Korea since 2012, talks to reporters after he arrived Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., after he was freed during a top-secret mission. Looking on from left are Bae's brother-in-law Andrew Chung, his mother, Myunghee Bae, his sister, Terri Chung, and nieces Ella and Caitlin Chung. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Kenneth Bae, who had been held in North Korea since 2012, greets his mother Myunghee Bae after arriving, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., after they were freed during a top-secret mission by James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
The Plane carrying Kenneth Bae, who had been held in North Korea since 2012, and Matthew Miller, who had been held since April, 2014, arrives Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., after they were freed during a top-secret mission by James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Matthew Miller, top, who had been held in North Korea since April, 2014, walks off the plane after arriving Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., after he were freed during a top-secret mission by James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Matthew Miller, center, who had been held in North Korea since April, 2014, is greeted after arriving Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., after he were freed during a top-secret mission. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Kenneth Bae, a American tour guide and missionary serving a 15-year sentence, detained in North Korea, speaks to the Associated Press, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has given foreign media access to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and watched by officials as they spoke, called for Washington to send a representative to negotiate for their freedom. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
A conservative anti-North Korean activist holds a placard calling for the release of detained US missionary Kenneth Bae following a protest against the North Korean regime, in Seoul on Febraury 16, 2014. Rare talks between the rival Koreas ended on an even rarer note of agreement February 14, allowing an under-threat reunion for divided families to go ahead and fuelling hopes of further constructive engagement. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
What appears to be a United States Air Force passenger jet, right, is parked on the tarmac of Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. The State Department says Jeffrey Fowle, one of three Americans being held in North Korea, has been released. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Fowle was on his was home Tuesday after negotiators left Pyongyang. She said the U.S. is still trying to free Americans Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
A conservative anti-North Korean activist holds placards calling for the release of detained US missionary Kenneth Bae following a protest against the North Korean regime, in Seoul on Febraury 16, 2014. Rare talks between the rival Koreas ended on an even rarer note of agreement February 14, allowing an under-threat reunion for divided families to go ahead and fuelling hopes of further constructive engagement. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Kenneth Bae, an American tour guide and missionary serving a 15-year sentence, detained in North Korea, speaks to the Associated Press, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has given foreign media access to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and watched by officials as they spoke, called for Washington to send a representative to negotiate for their freedom. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
A protester carries a portrait of American missionary Kenneth Bae for an anti-North Korea rally in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, making the anniversary of the birth of North Korea's late leader Kim Jong Il. The protesters called for the release of Bae who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
American missionary Kenneth Bae speaks to reporters at Pyongyang Friendship Hospital in Pyongyang Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. Bae, 45, who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year, appealed for the U.S. to do its best to secure his release. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)
FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2014 file photo, American missionary Kenneth Bae, right, leaves after speaking to reporters at Pyongyang Friendship Hospital in Pyongyang. Bae, 45, who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year, appealed for the U.S. to do its best to secure his release. Bae has been returned to a labor camp, prompting worries about his health, his sister Terri Chung said Friday, Feb. 7. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon, File)
American missionary Kenneth Bae, second from right, arrives to speak to reporters at Pyongyang Friendship Hospital in Pyongyang Monday, Jan. 20, 2014. Bae, 45, who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year, appealed for the U.S. to do its best to secure his release. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon)
Jeffrey Fowle, an American detained in North Korea, speaks to the Associated Press, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has given foreign media access to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and watched by officials as they spoke, called for Washington to send a representative to negotiate for their freedom. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Jeffrey Fowle, an American detained in North Korea, speaks to the Associated Press, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has given foreign media access to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and watched by officials as they spoke, called for Washington to send a representative to negotiate for their freedom. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Jeffrey Fowle, an American detained in North Korea, speaks to the Associated Press, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has given foreign media access to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and watched by officials as they spoke, called for Washington to send a representative to negotiate for their freedom. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
The wife and children of Jeffrey Edward Fowle sit with their attorney, Tim Tepe, center, during a news conference at Tepe's office in Lebanon, Ohio. Fowle has been charged with "anti-state" crimes in North Korea. Fowle's family apologized Tuesday to the communist country and pleaded for its government to show him mercy, saying in a statement they're "desperate for his release and return home." From left are: Fowle's sons, Alex, 13, and Chris, 11; wife Tatyana, 40, and daughter Stephanie, 9. (AP Photo/Amanda Lee Myers)
Tanya Fowle, right, wife of Jeffrey Fowle, listens as attorney Tim Tepe reads a statement from the family, Monday, June 9, 2014, in Lebanon, Ohio. Tepe said that Jeffrey Fowle was on vacation as part of a tour when he was detained in North Korea last week. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
In this image taken from video, U.S. citizen Jeffrey Edward Fowle speaks at an undisclosed location in North Korea Friday, Aug. 1, 2014. Two Americans, Fowle and Matthew Todd Miller, charged with “anti-state” crimes in North Korea say in a video that they expect to be tried soon and possibly receive long prison terms, and appeal for help from the U.S. government. They made the comments in the video shot by a local AP Television News crew. The crew was taken to a location to meet the detained Americans after repeated requests to North Korean authorities to see them. (AP Photo/APTN)
Tanya Fowle, wife of Jeffrey Fowle, leaves the room after attorney Tim Tepe read a statement from the family, Monday, June 9, 2014, in Lebanon, Ohio. Tepe said that Jeffrey Fowle was on vacation as part of a tour when he was detained in North Korea last week. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
Tanya Fowle, right, wife of Jeffrey Fowle, listens as attorney Tim Tepe reads a statement from the family, Monday, June 9, 2014, in Lebanon, Ohio. Tepe said that Jeffrey Fowle was on vacation as part of a tour when he was detained in North Korea last week. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
Mathew Miller, an American detained in North Korea speaks to the Associated Press, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has given foreign media access to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and watched by officials as they spoke, called for Washington to send a representative to negotiate for their freedom. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Mathew Miller, an American detained in North Korea, speaks to the Associated Press, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has given foreign media access to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and watched by officials as they spoke, called for Washington to send a representative to negotiate for their freedom. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Mathew Miller, an American detained in North Korea, waits in a room after speaking to the Associated Press, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has given foreign media access to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and watched by officials as they spoke, called for Washington to send a representative to negotiate for their freedom. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Mathew Miller, an American detained in North Korea, speaks to the Associated Press, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has given foreign media access to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and watched by officials as they spoke, called for Washington to send a representative to negotiate for their freedom. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Mathew Miller, an American detained in North Korea, speaks to the Associated Press, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea has given foreign media access to three detained Americans who said they have been able to contact their families and watched by officials as they spoke, called for Washington to send a representative to negotiate for their freedom. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
President Barack Obama, joined by outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, talks about the release of two Americans detained in North Korea, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington after announcing that he will nominate US Attorney Loretta Lynch to replace Holder. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Jeffrey Fowle talks about being detained in North Korea for nearly six weeks, Friday, Oct. 31, 2014 in Lebanon, Ohio. Fowle, sitting in his attorney's office during the interview, was held for nearly six months in North Korea after leaving a Bible at a nightclub. Christian evangelism is considered a crime in North Korea. Fowle was released on Oct. 22, 2014 and returned to Dayton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Skip Peterson)
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WASHINGTON (AP) - Two Americans held by North Korea were on their way home Saturday after their release was secured through a secret mission by the top U.S. intelligence official to the reclusive Communist country.

Matthew Miller of Bakersfield, California, and Kenneth Bae of Lynnwood, Washington, were flying back to the West Coast with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, according to U.S. officials. Clapper was the highest-ranking American to visit Pyongyang in more than a decade.

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 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," President Barack 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."

U.S. 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 authorization to speak on the record.

North Korea Releases American Detainees

But 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.

"The North Koreans seem to be obsessed over the human rights issue," she said. "This human rights thing is showing itself to be an unexpected leverage for the US."

Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now at the Heritage Foundation, agreed that efforts to shine a spotlight on the country's human rights record "startled the regime and led to frantic attempts to derail the process."

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. "We're pleased that this humanitarian gesture has taken place."

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 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 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.

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

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 Vice President Al Gore and former President Jimmy Carter had gone to North Korea 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.

In recent years, Syd Seiler, a former CIA officer who was recently designated as the U.S. envoy on the North Korean nuclear issue, has made at least one secret trip to North Korea.

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 U.S. wants the North to take concrete steps to show it's committed to denuclearization before the talks can resume.

The last concerted U.S. effort to restart those negotiations collapsed in spring 2012. North Korea had agreed to freeze its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for food aid, but then launched a long-range rocket in breach of a U.N. ban on its use of ballistic missile technology.

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.

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