Washington : Two Americans freed from secretive North Korea stepped off a plane into the welcoming arms of family on Saturday after the surprise involvement of the top-ranking U.S. intelligence official who traveled to Pyongyang to bring them home.

Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, who had been doing hard labor for months in North Korea, were accompanied on their journey home by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a senior US official said. Their release comes less than three weeks after another American was freed by Pyongyang. The two men arrived at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma in Washington state on a Boeing C-40 Clipper aircraft bearing the words ‘United States of America.’

A smiling Bae exited the aircraft and in an emotional reunion on the tarmac greeted his mother, sister, brother-in-law and two young nieces. Miller followed minutes later and also hugged family members. Both men had close-cropped hair. Bae, 46, a Korean-American missionary from Lynnwood north of Seattle, was arrested in North Korea in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor for crimes against the state. Miller, in his mid-20s, was reportedly convicted on an espionage charge and in custody since April, serving a six-year hard labor sentence.

Bae thanked President Barack Obama and the North Korean government for his freedom and said he appreciated the thoughts and prayers of people who supported him. ‘It’s been an amazing two years, I learned a lot, I grew a lot, lost a lot of weight - in a good way - but I’m standing strong because of you and thank you for being there in such time as this,’ Bae said at a news conference. When asked about his health, Bae said he was still recovering. His family had expressed concern about his wellbeing during his detention, saying he had diabetes, an enlarged heart, deteriorating vision and back and leg pains. Miller did not speak to reporters.

The United States had frequently called for the men to be freed for humanitarian reasons, especially given Bae’s health problems. CNN reported the North Korean government issued a statement about the release, saying it received an ‘earnest apology’ from Obama for the men’s actions. It also said the two were ‘sincerely repentant of their crimes and (were) behaving themselves while serving their terms.’

According to the statement, the first chairman of North Korea’s National Defense Commission, the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, ordered the release. North Korea, already under international sanctions for its nuclear and missile programs, 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.