Kenneth Bae (L) reunites with his family at U.S. Air Force Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Fort Lewis after N.Korea freed him with another american citizen, Washington November 8, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)
US intelligence chief James Clapper made a secret mission to North Korea to secure the release of two Americans at Pyongyang's initiative, but did not meet leader Kim Jong-Un, an official said.
Clapper, who flew back with the two freed men to an airbase in Washington state on Saturday, conducted talks with senior North Koreans but stayed less than a day and never met Kim, a US senior administration official said.
Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller landed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord late Saturday where they were greeted by friends and family, following their surprise release.
"This was a very unique opportunity to bring home two Americans," the official said, adding that Clapper spent roughly a day in North Korea with the "sole purpose" of obtaining the two men's release.
Clapper carried a brief message from US President Barack Obama to Kim indicating he was his personal envoy to bring the Americans home.
The official said the North Koreans had floated the possibility of a release several weeks ago and had requested a senior American official.
Clapper was chosen for his experience with Korean issues and because as a national security official and non-diplomat, the visit would fall outside the realm of diplomacy, the administration official said.
North Korea has expressed interest in the past in reviving six-party talks with the US and others about its nuclear program, but Washington insists
Pyongyang must first show a tangible commitment to denuclearization.
An official with the State Department insisted the release of Bae and Miller did not reflect a shift in posture over the mothballed nuclear negotiations.
The mission "was not to pursue any diplomatic opening," the administration official emphasized, adding that Clapper re-affirmed to North Korea that it must de-nuclearize before further talks could occur.
Bae, a Korean-American missionary, marked the two-year anniversary of his detention earlier this week.
The sickly 46-year-old was arrested in November 2012 and later sentenced to 15 years' hard labor.
Miller, 24, 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.
Washington had condemned Pyongyang over the detentions, saying the Americans were held as political hostages to extract diplomatic concessions.