WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 who are still 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.
“She is ecstatic, excited, use whatever word you want,” Tepe said.
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.
“We’ll let the North Koreans speak for themselves about why did they decide to do this,” Harf said. “But we are pleased that he was able to leave, and urge the immediate release of the other two.”
Fowle’s release comes as North Korea seeks to fend off criticism of its human rights situation following the release earlier this year of a groundbreaking U.N. report laying out the regime’s widespread abuses against its own citizens. The European Union and Japan have been pushing a U.N. resolution to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court, and Pyongyang doesn’t want the issue to even get to a vote.
Fowle was flown out of North Korea on a U.S. military jet which 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 United States 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 for leaving a Bible at the nightclub. 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.
In interviews last month with the AP, all three said they believed the only solution to their situation was for a U.S. representative to come and make a direct appeal. Pyongyang had refused that as recently as last month.
The timing of the release was especially curious, given an editorial published Tuesday by North Korea’s state run-Rodong Sinmun newspaper, which described relations with the U.S. at “the lowest ebb” since a 1994 diplomatic agreement between the two nations. Tuesday marked the 20th anniversary of that protocol, which froze Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program in return for the provision of nuclear power reactors and the eventual normalization of ties with the United States. The protocol has since unraveled.
Subsequent aid-for-disarmament negotiations on the North’s nuclear program, involving the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia have been stalled since 2008. The newspaper editorial Tuesday spoke of a “hostile policy” of the U.S. and said Washington should not oppose North Korea’s nuclear deterrence.
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.
In late September, he spoke briefly to an AP journalist at a Pyongyang hotel where the North Korean government allowed him to call his family. He said he was digging in fields eight hours a day and being kept in isolation, but so far his health wasn’t deteriorating.
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.
Bae is suffering from chronic health issues, including back pain, diabetes, an enlarged heart and liver problems.
He has said he feels abandoned by the U.S. government.
Associated Press journalists Eric Talmadge and Maye-E Wong in Pyongyang, North Korea, and AP writers Daniel Sewell in Cincinnati and Deb Riechmann and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
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