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North Korea Releases American Prisoners Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller

The US government has confirmed that the two detainees have been allowed to leave North Korea and are on their way home to reunite with their families.

by Liz Fields
Nov 8 2014, 4:45pm

Photo by Kim Kwang Hyon/AP

Two US citizens detained in North Korea were released Saturday, the US State Department said in a statement.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Kenneth Bae, a missionary held captive for more than two years, and Matthew Todd Miller, a 26-year-old California native imprisoned for seven months, were freed on humanitarian grounds. Psaki credited Director of National Intelligence James Clapper for securing their release.

"We are grateful to Director of National Intelligence Clapper, who engaged on behalf of the United States in discussions with DPRK authorities about the release of two citizens," the statement said.

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Psaki also thanked Swedish diplomats for negotiating with North Korea on behalf of the US.

"We also want to thank our international partners, especially our Protecting Power, the Government of Sweden, for their tireless efforts to help secure the freedom of Mr. Bae and Mr. Miller," she said.

A separate statement issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that Bae and Miller are "on their way home," accompanied by Clapper, and that the US government is "facilitating their return to the United States."

No other details of the terms and conditions of the releases were made public.

Miller, originally from Bakersfield, California, was arrested for allegedly ripping up his visa and demanding asylum when he arrived in North Korea on April 10, 2014. He was eventually accused of spying for the US and South Korea, and sentenced in mid-September to six years hard labor.

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Bae, 46, was arrested in November 2012. An evangelical Christian missionary, Bae owned a company in China that offered tours of North Korea. He was accused of committing "hostile acts" against North Korea and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Bae reportedly suffered health problems throughout his imprisonment, and was briefly hospitalized in January.

"I think it's a wonderful day for them and their families, and we're very grateful to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for doing a great job on what was obviously a very challenging mission," President Barack Obama said Saturday.

In October, North Korea released 56-year-old US citizen Jeffrey Fowle, a tourist who was detained in May for allegedly leaving a bible in a public place. The Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang negotiated Fowle's release, and he flew home October 21 on a US jet. 

American missionary Kenneth Bae leaves after speaking to reporters at a hospital in Pyongyang on January 20, 2014. (Photo by Kim Kwang Hyon/AP)

The US holds no formal diplomatic ties with North Korea, and Sweden has acted as its intermediary on all matters involving political prisoners. Swedish representatives had visited the American detainees on numerous occasions.

Victor Cha, a Georgetown professor and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News that the release of Miller and Bae was a surprise that came "completely out of the blue."

"I don't think we can draw any conclusions about it in terms of the broader dialogue on six-party talks on nuclear weapons," Cha said, referencing the ongoing meetings held between six states, including the US, intended to find a peaceful resolution to the issue of North Korean nuclear armament.

Cha said instead that the releases could be North Korea's knee-jerk reaction to ongoing pressures on its human rights record, and an attempt to "blunt criticism from the international community."

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The UN General Assembly's Third Committee, which deals with human rights, is currently deliberating a draft resolution prepared by the European Union and Japan stating reasons why North Korea should be taken before the International Criminal Court at the Hague.

The resolution was sparked in part by a report from the UN's head investigator for human rights in North Korea detailing "unspeakable atrocities" committed by the government against its citizens, including systematic murder, rape, enslavement, starvation, and torture.

"I think this is freaking them out," Cha said. "[North Korea] has never seen anything like this before. They are used to UN sanctions and US military exercises, but this was completely out of the blue for them. I think it's the reason they released Jeffrey Fowle and now why they released the others."

In recent months, the State Department offered unsuccessfully to send the US envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, to negotiate the release of the three US prisoners.

Visits from high-level US officials have previously resulted in the freeing of American detainees in North Korea. Those include two trips made by former US presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in 2009 and 2010, respectively, to negotiate amnesty for US citizens.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields