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Kenneth Bae Of Lynnwood Released From North Korea

Kenneth Bae, a Lynnwood man detained for two years in North Korea, has been freed, U.S. officials say.

Detained in 2012, Bae was convicted of trying to overthrow the Pyongyang regime and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

Bae’s family learned early Saturday morning that he was bound for the U.S. His sister Terri Chung indicated that he would return to the Seattle area, where his family lives.

“I am thrilled to imagine hugging my brother soon,” Chung wrote in a statement. “He will not have to spend another day at a labor camp. He can now recover from this imprisonment and look forward to his wife, kids and rest of his life.

“Our Thanksgiving celebration this year will be one we will never forget.”

Chung thanked the U.S. government and the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang for their “tireless efforts to advocate for Kenneth during his prolonged imprisonment.”

Released alongside Bae was Matthew Todd Miller, who was held for months in North Korea. Miller, 24, a tourist from Bakersfield, California, was arrested in April and sentenced to six years on charges of espionage.

Pyongyang claimed that Miller tore up his visa and asked for asylum so he would be thrown into jail where he could investigate alleged human rights abuses there.

Both men left North Korean airspace aboard a plane with James Clapper, director of national intelligence, his office said.

They were the only remaining Americans known to be in North Korean custody.

President Obama, speaking at the tail end of a news conference announcing his nomination of Loretta Lynch to the post of attorney general, said on the release of Bae and Miller: "Wonderful day for them and the families — grateful for their safe return and I appreciate Director Clapper, who is doing a great job on what was obviously a challenging mission."

The release of Bae and Miller comes weeks after another American detainee in North Korea, Jeffrey Fowle, was set free.

Fowle, 56, of Miamisburg, Ohio, was arrested in June. After his release, Fowle said he had attracted the attention of authorities after leaving a Korean/English Bible in a public bathroom in a restaurant and bar in Pyongyang.

KUOW was not able to reach Bae’s family or friends this morning but spoke with Chung two weeks ago, when Fowle was released.

Chung said then that she hoped her brother would be home for Thanksgiving. She said she was worried about his health.

"He's in the hard labor camp, where he's doing eight hours of labor, six days a week,” she said. “His health has been really poor, so that's our primary concern.

“But also the fact that he's been so isolated. He's essentially in solitary confinement with only guards to talk to on a daily basis for human contact. So we were just really worried about his health physically but how his spirits are holding up after being so shut off for two years."

Bae has diabetes, Chung said, as well as liver and lung problems. He was hospitalized twice while detained in North Korea. 

Based out of China since 2006, Bae had visited North Korea several times as a tour operator. On his last trip, Chung said last year she suspected her brother’s Christian convictions may have landed him trouble.

In October 2013, North Korea allowed Bae's mother to visit him at a hospital where he was being treated for various chronic issues. Chung said her mom was relieved to see her son but also pained by the clearer picture of his life in prison.

“To have spent those few days together, then to have to leave him behind, I think was just devastating for her,” Chung said. “Why couldn’t he just come back with her?”

Bae had lost 50 pounds since the beginning of his imprisonment but gained back some weight while hospitalized. During their visit, Bae showed his mother the letters he received from about 150 supporters.

“I guess once a week he pulls them all out and re-reads them again, just for that sense of connection to the outside world,” she said at the time.

KUOW reporters Liz Jones, Derek Wang and Jason Pagano contributed reporting. This article also includes reporting from The Associated Press and National Public Radio.