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Released From North Korea, Kenneth Bae Reunites With Family

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's hear the story of one of the two freed Americans - Kenneth Bae. He was detained in North Korea back in 2012 while leading a tour group and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Bae was reunited with his family near Seattle. Liz Jones, of our member station KUOW, reports.

LIZ JONES, BYLINE: Kenneth Bae's family got the call early Saturday morning. Kenneth was coming home. Later that night, his plane touched down near Seattle. First, he hugged his mother. Then later, Bae spoke briefly with reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNETH BAE: I just want to say thank you all for supporting me, lifting me up and not forgetting me at the same time that I was not forgetting the people of North Korea.

JONES: Bae spent much of the past two years in a labor camp. But he appeared healthy, upbeat and smiling. His younger sister, Terry Chung, was at his side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRY CHUNG: We are finally here. My brother is home. We are so thankful.

JONES: On Sunday, Bae had breakfast with college friends who'd supported his family through this ordeal. Terry Chung went to church.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH MUSIC)

JONES: Just last Sunday here, Chung had shared an update about his brother's imprisonment. Today, the pastor invited her on stage as they shared the happy news. Friends hugged her in the aisle. As a service let out, a few church members shared their relief that this family's worry is finally over.

JI CHOI: And we didn't know when it was going to happen but we were praying that it would happen. And we are all very, very glad that he's home safe.

KALEY HANSEN: It's a miracle. It's amazing.

DARWIN CRUZ: It was great news. I mean, we've been following this for multiple years.

JONES: That was Ji Choi, Kaley Hansen and Darwin Cruz. None of them know Bae personally because he lived in China for the past several years. From China, Bae traveled frequently to North Korea as a tour operator. But it's reportedly his work as a Christian missionary that got him in trouble there with the reclusive Communist regime. North Korea accused Bae of plans to bring down the government through religious activities. Outside the church, Chung shared a bit of the family's reunion so far, like Bae's first meal at home.

CHUNG: And he said I don't want Korean food. That's all I've been eating for the last two years. He's like, I want a burger or pizza or something, you know?

JONES: They settled on pizza. Chung says her brother's eager to catch up with friends and family and to share his experience with them.

CHUNG: So you could tell he was so hungry for that because you can imagine, he was cut off from all of that for two years.

JONES: Her brother's lost weight. She's sure he's changed. But Chung's also relieved to see traces of the same old Kenneth.

CHUNG: Holding court and telling funny stories and eating pizza and drinking Coke.

JONES: Chung says she'll always remember that night on the tarmac, seeing her brother step off the plane.

CHUNG: We had agreed that my mom would hug him first. And when I saw that I just - you know, wow.

JONES: Without a doubt, this will be a Thanksgiving that Kenneth Bae's family will never forget. For NPR News, I'm Liz Jones in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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