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Two Americans Held In North Korea Are Released

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

Two Americans imprisoned in North Korea have been released and are on their way home. President Obama says he's grateful for the safe return of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller. But while the U.S. is sounding pleased that these cases are over, they say it's too early to tell if there's a real opening now with this secretive communist nation. NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us now. First of all, Michele, what can you tell us about these two men?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The one who's been held the longest is Kenneth Bae. He's a Korean-American missionary. And he had been leading a group to North Korea when he was arrested almost exactly two years ago. North Korea accused him of hostile acts against the government. You know, this is a place where there's no freedom of religion, obviously. And Bae was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

The other man, Matthew Todd Miller, is a bit of an odd story. He's from California and went to North Korea earlier this year. The North Koreans say that he ripped up his visa and that he wanted to seek asylum. And they jailed him and also sentenced him to hard labor.

GRIGSBY BATES: And North Korea recently released a third American, Jeffrey Fowle, who'd left a Bible at a sailor's club in North Korea. What's going on here? Why are they suddenly releasing Americans?

KELEMEN: It's hard to say, Karen. But it does coincide a bit with a charm offensive of sorts by North Korea. North Korea has been trying to head off a U.N. Security Council debate over referring Pyongyang to the International Criminal Court. There have been some really tough U.N. reports recently. For instance, a Commission of Inquiry earlier this year detailed widespread abuses - the prison camps, torture, starvation. And all of that prompted a debate in the U.N. Security Council. Some members now are trying to push through a draft resolution on the issue of human rights to punish North Korea for this.

GRIGSBY BATES: So despite these three releases, the U.S. government says this is not an opening in relations with North Korea.

KELEMEN: Yeah, it says - an official told me that North Korea knows what it needs to do to shed its pariah status in the world. Part of it is to improve its human rights record. But the official says that that's a separate issue from releasing Americans. It's this more broad issue. And the other big issue of course is the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. That's a long-sought goal by the U.S. and other major powers.

GRIGSBY BATES: The U.S. government sent an intelligence guy - James Clapper - to negotiate these releases. What can we read from that?

KELEMEN: You know, it was really an interesting choice. He's kind of an unlikely diplomat here. His job is to coordinate U.S. spy agencies. But officials say Clapper was there and open to talking to North Korea about the nuclear issue - not to negotiate but to hear out what the North Koreans had to say about that. You know, North Korea wants to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state. The U.S. wants it to fulfill past commitments to denuclearize. We still don't know much about any of these conversations he might have had there. The good news is that he managed to bring Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller home.

GRIGSBY BATES: NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.