WASHINGTON – North Korea’s reclusive government abruptly freed an American man Tuesday, nearly six months after he was arrested on charges of leaving a Bible in a nightclub, but Pyongyang refused to hand over two other U.S. citizens being held.
There was no immediate explanation for the release of Jeffrey Fowle, who was quickly whisked to the U.S. territory of Guam before heading back to his wife and three children in Miamisburg, Ohio. Relations between Washington and Pyongyang, never warm, are at a particularly low point, and the U.S. has sought unsuccessfully for months to send a high-level representative to North Korea to negotiate acquittals for all three men.
Fowle’s wife, Tatyana, “screamed when I told her,” said family attorney Timothy Tepe, who received a call from the State Department with word of the release. Tepe said Fowle himself called his wife soon afterward.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Fowle was seen by doctors and appeared to be in good medical health. She declined to give more details about his release except to thank the government of Sweden, which has an embassy in Pyongyang, for its “tireless efforts.”
Harf would not say whether any American officials had intervened directly with the North Koreans.
Fowle was flown out of North Korea on a U.S. military jet that was spotted at Pyongyang’s international airport Tuesday by two Associated Press journalists.
There was no immediate comment from the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with North Korea and strongly warns American citizens against traveling to the country.
Fowle, 56, arrived there on April 29 and was arrested in May. Christian evangelism is considered a crime in North Korea. He was awaiting trial – the only one of the three Americans held by Pyongyang who had not been convicted of charges.
The two others – Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller – were each sentenced to years in North Korean prisons after court trials that lasted no more than 90 minutes. The three Americans entered North Korea separately.
Analysts say North Korea has previously used detained Americans as leverage in its standoff with the U.S., a contention that Pyongyang denies. Washington, too, has floated the possibility of a diplomatic opening in ties between the two countries should North Korea free the detainees.
Miller, 24, was convicted just six weeks ago of entering North Korea illegally to commit espionage and sentenced to six years of hard labor. North Korea’s Supreme Court said he tore up his tourist visa at Pyongyang’s airport upon arrival on April 10 and admitted to the “wild ambition” of experiencing prison life so that he could secretly investigate North Korea’s human rights situation.
Bae, 46, has been held since November 2012 when he was detained while leading a tour group in a special North Korean economic zone. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “hostile acts” after being accused of smuggling in inflammatory literature and trying to establish a base for anti-government activities at a border city hotel. Bae is a Korean-American missionary, and his family believes he was detained because of his Christian faith.
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