SEOUL: North Korea said on Wednesday (Oct 22) that “criminal” US detainee Jeffrey Fowle was freed on the orders of leader Kim Jong-un following “repeated requests” from President Barack Obama. In a brief report, the official KCNA news agency said Fowle, 56, had been handed over to the US authorities in accordance with relevant legal procedures.
“Kim Jong-un, first chairman of the National Defence Commission … took such a special measure as setting free Jeffrey Edward Fowle, US criminal, taking into consideration the repeated requests of US President Obama,” it said. Fowle, one of three Americans detained in North Korea, was released on Tuesday and allowed to go home in a US government plane that flew to Pyongyang.
Fowle had entered the North in April and was detained after apparently leaving a Bible in the bathroom of a nightclub in the northern port of Chongjin. North Korea regards unsanctioned proselytising or missionary work as a criminal act.
Announcing Fowle’s release earlier, the US State Department had declined to provide any details of how it was brokered, citing ongoing efforts to secure the return of two other Americans – Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae – serving hard-labour prison terms in the North. Washington has accused Pyongyang of using the detainees as political hostages and repeatedly called for their immediate release.
Given Pyongyang’s repeated rejection of US offers to send an envoy to negotiate the detainees’ freedom, the sudden decision to let Fowle go took many observers by surprise. “It could mean the North Korean leadership is interested in exploring what might be possible in terms of picking up a conversation with the US again,” said Paul Carroll, a North Korea expert and programme director at the Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco.
US officials said Pyongyang had given Washington a timeframe within which to transport Fowle out of the country and the Pentagon had decided to send in a plane, even though Washington does not have diplomatic ties with North Korea. Some observers suggested Pyongyang may have insisted on the government plane to lend an official diplomatic element to the release procedure.
The US State Department said it would continue to work “actively” to try to free Miller and Bae and repeated US offers to send a department envoy, Robert King, to the isolated North to discuss their plight. The 24-year-old Miller was arrested in April after allegedly ripping up his visa at immigration. He was sentenced to six years’ hard labour in September. Bae, 42, is serving a 15-year prison term, having been arrested in 2012 and charged with being a militant Christian evangelist intent on seeking to topple the regime.