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North Korea finally releases American prisoners Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller

A 2013 South Korean broadcast about American Kenneth Bae, then held in North Korea
A 2013 South Korean broadcast about American Kenneth Bae, then held in North Korea
KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty

North Korea has released its only two remaining American prisoners. Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller are heading home.

James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, traveled to Pyongyang and negotiated the men's release, CNN reports. (The State Department thanked Clapper for engaging in discussions on behalf of the US government, but did not mention his travel to North Korea.) The negotiations over the men's release were apparently facilitated by Sweden, because the US does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea.

No "quid pro quo" was given to North Korea in exchange for Bae and Miller's freedom, US officials told CNN. However, there have been several instances in the past of North Korea releasing American prisoners after a visit from a US dignitary. In 2009, former President Bill Clinton traveled to Pyongyang to secure the release of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. In 2010, former President Jimmy Carter obtained the release of American teacher Aijalon Gomes. Such visits are valuable in themselves to the North Korean government; state media typically portrays the visiting foreigners as kowtowing before the superior North Koreans.

Here is a quick primer on the two released Americans.

Who is Kenneth Bae?

Kenneth Bae was arrested in North Korea in 2012 while acting as a guide for a group of foreign tourists. He ran a tour company that brought tourists to North Korea and had made multiple trips to the country, apparently without incident, prior to his arrest.

However, Bae is a devout Christian, and was arrested on suspicion of being part of a Christian plot to overthrow the North Korean government, which fears organized Christianity as an existential threat. In 2013, Bae was convicted of "hostile acts" against the regime and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

North Korea's prison camps are notoriously brutal and Bae's health appears to have suffered as a result of his incarceration. He was moved to a hospital last year, and the US government had repeatedly called for him to be released on humanitarian grounds.

Who is Matthew Todd Miller?

Matthew Todd Miller is a 25-year-old American who was arrested seven months ago. In September he was convicted of espionage and sentenced to six years of hard labor.

Miller's saga is a strange one and it's hard to know which reported elements, if any, are true. According to the North Korean government, Miller arrived in the country as a tourist, but then tore up his visa and told the North Korean government he had US military secrets to share. The North Korean government concluded that he was actually attempting to covertly gather information about the human rights situation in the country's notorious prison system.

According to Scott Snyder, the director of the Program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, Miller's trial and conviction may have been an attempt on the part of the DPRK government to politicize the hostages so as to use them as leverage on other issues, such as North Korea's nuclear program.

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