Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller were flying home Saturday accompanied by the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, according to a spokesman for the office.
"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 U.S. State Department said in a statement.
"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."
Why has North Korea released these Americans now?
The release of Miller and Bae comes almost three weeks after another detained American, Jeffrey Fowles, was suddenly released by North Korea. Fowles had been detained after leaving a Bible at a nightclub during a tour.
After the Fowles release, Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute in Berkeley, Calif, speculated that “North Korea is making a diplomatic push that could lead in a year’s time to a meeting between President Obama and Kim Jong Un.” The Fowles release, according to Hayes, was a small effort to show China and Russia that Kim is trying to engage the Americans. He takes the view that if the White House can carry off a nuclear deal with Iran, then North Korea would follow suit.
The release also comes on the eve of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing. The freeing of these American could be a good-will gesture that China can use in their trade negotiations. The release will be major news as President Obama begins a swing through Asia, with the first stop in China, which is North Korea's neighbor and benefactor.
North Korea arrested Bae, a father of three grown children, as he led a tour through the city of Rason in November 2012. Bae, a Korean-American missionary, had led more than a dozen tours to North Korea from China. Bae moved to China, from Lynnwood, Wash., in 2005.
He was convicted on charges of "hostile acts" against the government and was serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor.
A spokesman of the North Korean Supreme Court told state news agency KCNA that Mr. Bae "set up plot-breeding bases in different places of China for the purpose of toppling the DPRK government from 2006 to October 2012 out of distrust and enmity toward the DPRK."
As The Christian Science Monitor reported in May 2013, the KCNA reported:
[Bae] committed such hostile acts as egging citizens of the DPRK overseas and foreigners on to perpetrate hostile acts to bring down its government while conducting a malignant smear campaign against it. He was caught red handed and prosecuted while entering Rason City of the DPRK, bringing with him anti-DPRK literature on Nov. 3 last year.
Pae visited different churches of the U.S. and south Korea to preach the necessity and urgency to bring down the DPRK government. He was dispatched to China as a missionary of theYouth With A Mission in April, 2006. After setting up plot-breeding bases disguised with diverse signboards in different parts of China for the past six years, avoiding the eyes of its security organs, he brought together more than 1,500 citizens of the DPRK, China and foreigners before whom he gave anti-DPRK lectures.
A recent United Nations report on the North Korean government’s human rights record lists a broad range of violations but underscores the regime’s hostility to religion and to Christianity in particular. The report notes that Christianity is considered “a tool of Western and capitalist invasion.” Other North Korea analysts say religion is seen to be a threat to the personality cult of the Kim regime, reported The Monitor.
Matthew Miller, who entered North Korea in April 2014, on a tour organized by a New Jersey travel agency, and reportedly proceeded to destroy his tourist visa and demand asylum. North Korea state media described Miller's act as "a gross violation of its legal order" after entering the country on a tourist visa. Miller was sentenced to six years hard labor in September.
The US State Department has periodically warned Americans against visiting North Korea, noting the absence of civil protections in the totalitarian state and the fact that the United States has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.