Merrill Newman, 85, of Palo Alto, was held as a war criminal since he was taken off a plane Oct. 26 by North Korean authorities. He was preparing to leave the country after a 10-day sightseeing trip.
Newman, a former finance executive, has a heart condition and his family had been worried about his health since he was detained while trying to leave the country on a tourist visa.
State media in North Korea says Newman was released because he apologized for his alleged crimes during the Korean War and because of his age and medical condition.
"I am very glad to be on my way home," a smiling Newman told reporters after arriving at the airport in Beijing from Pyongyang. "And I appreciate the tolerance the (North Korean) government has given to me to be on my way."
"I feel good," Newman said, adding with a laugh that the first thing he planned to do was "go home and see my wife."
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who is traveling in Seoul, welcomed the release and said he talked by phone with Newman in Beijing, offering him a ride home on Air Force Two. Biden said Newman declined because of a direct flight to his home state of California, which he took later Saturday.
Newman's son, Jeffrey, said he spoke briefly with his father from Beijing and that he was "in excellent spirits and eager to be reunited with his family."
"As you can imagine this has been a very difficult ordeal for us as a family, and particularly for him," he said in a statement read outside his home in Pasadena, adding that they will say more about this unusual journey after Newman has rested.
It's not clear if Newman's confession was coerced but North Korea state media released video showing Newman reading an apology last Saturday.
Pyongyang has been accused of previously coercing statements from detainees. There was no way to reach Newman and determine the circumstances of the alleged confession. But it was riddled with stilted English and grammatical errors, such as "I want not punish me."
"I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people," Newman purportedly wrote in a four-page statement, adding: "Please forgive me."
His family released a statement following the video which stated that the State Department told them that the Swedish ambassador to North Korea had visited the 85-year-old at a Pyongyang hotel and found him to be in good health.
Sweden handles consular issues for Americans in North Korea as the U.S. and North Korea have no diplomatic relations.
"We are pleased that Mr. Merrill Newman has been allowed to depart the DPRK and re-join his family. We welcome the DPRK's decision to release him," the State Department said in a statement late Friday.
Newman is expected to arrive home Saturday morning in San Francisco.
ABC News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.