Kenneth Bae attends a press conference with his family on November 8, 2014 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State after being released from a North Korean jail
Joint Base Lewis-McChord (United States) (AFP) - Americans Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller marked their first full day of freedom Sunday, returning to the United States after being imprisoned in North Korea.
The two men arrived home late Saturday following a secret mission by US intelligence chief James Clapper to secure their freedom at Pyongyang's initiative.
North Korea's surprise release of the men followed Pyongyang's equally unexpected decision last month to free 56-year-old US national Jeffrey Fowle.
The two men descended from a US government jet with shaved heads and carrying their luggage, then embraced loved ones on the tarmac.
"It's just (an) amazing blessing to see so many people being on board, getting me released for the last two years, not to mention the thousands of people who prayed for me," Bae told a press conference.
"Thank you for... not forgetting me," he said.
Miller opted not to make remarks upon his arrival.
Clapper had carried a brief message from Obama to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un -- whom he never met during the short trip -- indicating he was his personal envoy to bring the Americans home, a US official said.
Bae, a Korean-American missionary, had served two years at a North Korea labor camp. Miller had been held since April.
- 'Awkward' Kim tries to reassure China -
Nicholas Burns, a former State Department top official and Asia expert, said the American detainees' surprise release marked the latest somewhat mysterious gambit by North Korea's inscrutable leader Kim Jong-Un.
"He makes all the big decisions, so he obviously made the decision to release the two Americans this weekend and the American last month," Burns told CNN on Sunday. "It looks like he's looking for a conversation with the United States.
But Burns said the move could also be linked to this week's travel by President Barack Obama to China for meetings with his Asian counterparts, including Beijing's leader Xi Jinping.
"The protector of North Korea is China," the former US diplomat said. "The Chinese over the last year and a half or so have become very frustrated with the wild behavior of the North Koreans, the constant threats against South Korea and the United States.
"It may be that in his own awkward, unsophisticated way, Kim Jong-Un is trying to reassure the Chinese he's not such a bad guy after all," Burns said.
North Korea has previously expressed interest in reviving six-party talks with the US and others about its illicit nuclear program, but Washington insists Pyongyang must first show a tangible commitment to de-nuclearization.
US officials have insisted the release of Bae and Miller did not reflect a shift in posture over the mothballed nuclear negotiations.
As recently as last week, North Korea was maintaining its defiant stance, ruling out dialogue with the United States about its nuclear program and human rights record and accusing the US of trying to destroy its system.
- Families joyful, relieved -
Miller had been sentenced to six years' hard labor by the North Korean Supreme Court following his arrest in April, after he allegedly ripped up his visa at immigration and demanded asylum.
The California native, who US media said is 25, had nurtured "a foolish idea of spying on the prison and human rights situation while experiencing 'prison life'," the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a September story.
Bae, 46, who marked the two-year anniversary of his detention last week, was sentenced to 15 years' hard labor. His sister Terri Chung expressed joy at her brother's release.
"We finally are here. My brother is home. All of our hopes and prayers for this moment have finally come true," she said, speaking before Bae took to the podium.
"We're thankful that God never abandoned us even though the last years have been a journey that we wouldn't wish on anybody, even when it seemed like there was no hope."