By Bill Trott and Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON, Nov 8 (Reuters) - North Korea freed two Americans from prison and they were returning to the United States on Saturday after the surprise involvement of the top-ranking U.S. intelligence official in their release.
Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, who had been doing hard labor for months in the reclusive country, were being accompanied home by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, his office said. Their release comes less than three weeks after another American was freed by Pyongyang.
Bae, a missionary from Washington state, was arrested in North Korea in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years hard labor for crimes against the state. Miller, who reportedly was tried on an espionage charge, had been in custody since April this year and was serving a six-year hard labor sentence.
The United States had frequently called for the men to be freed for humanitarian reasons, especially since Bae was said to have health problems.
North Korea has been on a diplomatic campaign to counter charges by a U.N. body that highlighted widespread human rights abuses and a move by some U.N. members to refer the state to an international tribunal. But it was not clear what prompted Pyongyang to free the two men at this time.
Their release did not constitute an opening in relations with North Korea, said a senior State Department official, who declined to be identified. The official said for that to happen, Pyongyang must fulfill its commitments on denuclearization and human rights.
"He (Clapper) was not there to negotiate. And our position hasn't changed."
The men were released just hours before President Barack Obama was to start a trip to Asia that will include talks with Chinese leaders about how Beijing can use its influence with North Korea to rein in its nuclear weapons program, U.S. officials have said.
"It's a wonderful day for them and their families," Obama said at the White House. "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 U.S. official said: "The DNI (Clapper) did carry a brief message from the President indicating that Director Clapper was his personal envoy to bring the two Americans home."
Myung Hee Bae, Kenneth Bae's mother, said she was told that her son would arrive soon at a U.S. Air Force base in Tacoma, Washington. She said she did not know when he was scheduled to arrive.
Bae's delighted son, Jonathan, told Reuters from Arizona that he received a call Friday night and spoke to his father. "The brief time on the phone, he sounded good," Jonathan said. "I'm sure he will be back to his old self in no time."
"It came out of the blue. One minute he was doing farm labor and the next minute they are saying, 'You are going home.' Just like everyone else, he was surprised," he said.
As director of national intelligence, a job created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Clapper oversees the CIA and some 15 other intelligence agencies, making his involvement in the release surprising. U.S. officials said it was the first time a national intelligence director had been involved such a high-profile diplomatic matter.
An Obama administration official, who declined to be identified, said there was no connection between Clapper's trip and the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons but that he acted as a presidential envoy with a broader mandate to listen to what North Korea had to say.
Arrangements for the release had come together in the past several days and North Korea had asked for a high-ranking envoy to be involved, the official said.
Clapper went to Pyongyang but there was no indication that he met personally with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The men's release came just a few weeks after North Korea freed another American, Jeffrey Fowle, 56 - a street repair worker from Miamisburg, Ohio, who had been arrested in May for leaving a Bible in a sailor's club in the North Korean city of Chongjin, where he was traveling as a tourist.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement: "We're pleased that this humanitarian gesture has taken place and that Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller will soon be reunited with their families."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also welcomed the release, his office said in a statement, adding, "The Secretary-General hopes that this positive momentum for improving relations among the concerned parties for peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and beyond will be built on."
Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the release could indicate North Korea wants to press Obama on the eve of his Asian trip and that Pyongyang is feeling international heat from the U.N. resolution.
"This is worrying to them," Cha said. "They have never seen anything like this before. Moreover, it is not coming from the U.S. but from the entire international community. They are trying to blunt criticism and perhaps water down the resolution with these actions."
Miller, of Bakersfield, California, and said to be in his mid-20s, had gone to North Korea on a tourist visa, which state media said he tore up while demanding Pyongyang grant him asylum.
The Associated Press reported Miller was tried on an espionage charge and prosecutors at his trial said he had falsely claimed to have secret information about the U.S. military stationed in South Korea.
Bae's family said on its website that Bae had been operating out of China since 2006 and had led more than a dozen tours of North Korea. They said his health problems included diabetes, an enlarged heart, deteriorating vision and back and leg pains.