World Asia

Americans held by North Korea implore U.S. to send an envoy soon

'My situation is very urgent,' says U.S. citizen detained in North Korea, Matthew Miller
Americans detained by North Korea urge U.S. to send someone to negotiate for their freedom

In a rare opportunity to speak with foreign media, the three Americans being detained by North Korea implored the United States to send someone to negotiate for their release.

Matthew Miller, Jeffrey Fowle and Kenneth Bae spoke Monday to CNN and the Associated Press in Pyongyang, the capital. They were interviewed separately and said they had no contact with one another.

Miller and Fowle, who were taken into custody in the spring and are facing trial for what North Korea has called hostile acts, emphasized their hope that the U.S. will move quickly. Fowle said he expected his trial to take place within a month and that he was “getting desperate for help.”

He voiced concern about his wife and three school-age children, who he said rely on him financially. “If this goes beyond the end of September, then I’m in grave danger of losing my job,” he told CNN. “My kids might be out on the street.”

The 56-year-old Ohioan is employed by a city streets department. His detention began in June, and he said he is accused of leaving a Bible in a North Korean nightclub. Christian proselytizing is considered a crime in the isolated country.

North Korea detained 24-year-old Miller, of Bakersfield, in April, saying he had torn up his tourist visa and expressed an intention to seek asylum in the country. In his interview with CNN, Miller acknowledged having said in a previous interview that he’d done that, but he refused to discuss the charge further. 

“My situation is very urgent.... Very soon I’m going to trial, and I would directly be sent to prison,” Miller told CNN. “This interview is my final chance to push the American government into helping me.”

Miller and Fowle said they had admitted guilt and apologized to the North Korean government. They also said they had been allowed to call their families.

The detainees each appeared to speak freely but cautiously, the Associated Press said. In videos posted by CNN, they were clearly not alone in the room with the interviewer.

Bae, who was detained in November 2012 and sentenced in April 2013 to 15 years of hard labor for crimes against the state, said that he has been doing agricultural work eight hours a day, six days a week, and that his health has been failing.

The 46-year-old said he has trouble sleeping, severe back pain and a blood circulation problem that causes his hands to go numb. He also said that he is the only prisoner at his labor camp and that 15 to 20 people oversee him on a daily basis.

“Send an envoy as soon as possible,” he said. “I think that’s the only hope I have right now to go home and be reunited with my family.”

Bae said he did not realize before the trial that he was violating North Korean law, but he refused to go into details.

He said the lead-up to his trial lasted about four months, but the trial took only about an hour. He said he chose not to have a defense attorney because “at that point there was no sense of me to get a lawyer because the only chance I had was to ask for mercy.”

Miller, Fowle and Bae said they were being treated humanely.

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said the country is continuing to work to get them released.

“Out of humanitarian concern for Jeffrey Fowle, Matthew Miller and their families, we request the DPRK release them so they may return home,” Jen Psaki said in a statement, referring to North Korea by its formal abbreviation. “We also request the DPRK pardon Kenneth Bae and grant him special amnesty and immediate release so he may reunite with his family and seek medical care.”

The U.S. has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korea human rights issues to Pyongyang to seek a pardon for Bae and other U.S. detainees, but without success. Washington has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and no embassy in Pyongyang. Instead, the Swedish Embassy handles U.S. consular affairs.

A small number of U.S. citizens visit North Korea each year as tourists, but the State Department strongly advises against it. After Miller's detention, the department updated its travel warning to note that in the last 18 months, “North Korea detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours.”

North Korea has been pushing tourism lately in an effort to bring in foreign cash. But it remains highly sensitive to any actions it considers political and is particularly wary of anything it deems to be Christian proselytizing.

Late last year, the country seized an 85-year-old tourist from Palo Alto just as his plane was about to depart the country. He was released more than a month later.

Early this year, an Australian missionary was held for about a month before being released.  

The Associated Press was used in compiling this report.

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Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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