November 13, 2014 6:02 AM EST

Kenneth Bae, a missionary, spent almost two years as a captive in North Korea and faced 13 more for what were deemed antigovernment activities. Matthew Miller was arrested there in April after reportedly ripping up his visa and demanding asylum in the isolated nation.

Both Americans touched down on U.S. soil on Nov. 8, an event made possible by an unusual bit of political maneuvering. U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper traveled to Pyongyang to secure the release of the last remaining American prisoners in North Korea. The fact that Clapper is a spy, not a diplomat, hints at the Obama Administration’s strategy. The Administration says it still won’t talk until North Korea dismantles its nuclear-weapons program. So it sent Clapper, a man powerful enough to appease Pyongyang, but not an official envoy.

It’s unclear if and how this might break the countries’ stalemate. For the families of Bae, 46, and Miller, 25, that is secondary. They’re home.

–EMILY RAUHALA

This appears in the November 24, 2014 issue of TIME.

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Write to Emily Rauhala at emily_rauhala@timeasia.com.

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