Monday, September 1, 2014

North Korea: As Difficult As It Is to Acknowledge, Imprisoned US Citizens Are There By Choice

According to The Associated PressNorth Korea gave foreign media access on Monday (September 1) to three detained US citizens who said they have been able to contact their families and--watched by officials as they spoke--called for Washington to send a high-ranking representative to negotiate for their freedom.

The three Americans were allowed to speak briefly with The Associated Press at a meeting center in Pyongyang. 

North Korean officials were present during the interviews, conducted separately and in different rooms, but did not censor the questions that were asked. 

Jeffrey Fowle and Mathew Miller said they expect to face trial within a month, but said they they do not know what punishment they could face or what the specific charges against them are. 

Kenneth Bae, who already is serving a 15-year term, said his health has deteriorated at the labor camp where he works eight hours a day.

All of the three imprisoned Americans said they believe the only solution to their situation is for a US representative to visit North Korea to make a direct appeal.

That has often been North Korea's bargaining chip in the past, when senior statesmen including former President Bill Clinton made trips to Pyongyang to secure the release of detainees.

COMMENT: Let me first state that in the cases of Messrs. Bae, Fowle and Miller, all are unfortunately incarcerated in North Korea as a result of their conscious choice to travel to North Korea. 

Consequently, US citizens who choose to travel abroad, in this case, to North Korea, do so at their own peril, knowing that North Korea is not particularly known for its gentile treatment of foreigners, particularly US citizens.

North Korea says Fowle and Miller committed hostile acts which violated their status as tourists. It has announced that authorities are preparing for the trial, but has not announced the date.

In Washington, National Security Council (NSC) spokesman Patrick Ventrell said, "We have seen the reports of interviews with the three American citizens detained in North Korea."

"Securing the release of US citizens is a top priority and we have followed these cases closely in the White House," his statement added. "We continue to do all we can to secure their earliest possible release."

Patrick Ventrell noted that the US State Department has issued a travel warning recommending against all travel to North Korea for US citizens.

That being said, US citizens have the option of adhering to such travel warnings or not.

Fowle arrived in North Korea on April 29. He is suspected of leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin. Christian proselytizing is considered a crime in North Korea. Fowle, 56, lives in Ohio where he works for a municipal agency. He has a wife and three children aged 9, 10, and 12.

"Within a month, I could be sharing a jail cell with Ken Bae," he said, adding that he hasn't spoken with his family for three weeks. "I'm desperate to get back to them."

North Korea says Miller, 24, entered the country on April 10, 2014, on a tourist visa, but tore it up at the airport and shouted that he wanted to seek asylum. Miller refused to comment on whether he was seeking asylum.

Bae, 46, a Korean-American missionary, has been held since November 2012. He was moved from a work camp to a hospital because of failing health and weight loss but last month was sent back to the work camp outside of Pyongyang, where he said he does farm-related labor. He said he has lost 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms) and has severe back pain, along with a sleep disorder. His family has said his health problems include diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain. Bae said he did not realize before the trial that he was violating North Korean law, but refused to go into details.V

The US has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, to Pyongyang to seek a pardon for Bae and other US detainees, but without success. Alternatively, the Swedish Embassy takes responsibility for US consular affairs.

Fowle and Miller said they have met with the Swedish ambassador and have been allowed to make phone calls to their relatives.

North Korea had made Fowle and Miller available to local staff of the AP previously. They were allowed to meet the AP again and be interviewed by a US reporter indicates North Korea's desire to resolve the issue through some sort of contact with Washington.

Though a small number of US citizens visit North Korea each year as tourists, the State Department strongly advises against it. After Miller's detention, Washington updated its travel warning to note that over the past 18 months, "North Korea detained several US citizens who were part of organized tours." North Korea has been strongly pushing tourism lately in an effort to bring in foreign cash. Yet, despite its efforts, it remains highly sensitive to any actions it considers political and is particularly wary of anything it deems to be Christian proselytizing.

Fowle and Miller said they have met with the Swedish ambassador and have been allowed to make phone calls to their relatives.

North Korea had made Fowle and Miller available to local staff of THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. The two Americans said they were allowed to meet the AP again and be interviewed by an American reporter indicates North Korea's desire to resolve the issue through some sort of contact with Washington.

Though a small number of US citizens visit North Korea each year as tourists, the US State Department strongly advises against it. After Miller's detention, Washington updated its travel warning to note that over the past 18 months, "North Korea detained several US citizens who were part of organized tours."
North Korea has been strongly pushing tourism lately in an effort to bring in foreign cash. But despite its efforts it remains highly sensitive to any actions it considers political and is particularly wary of anything it deems to be Christian proselytizing.

In March 2014, North Korea deported an Australian missionary detained for spreading Christianity after he apologized and requested forgiveness.