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North Korea to Put Two Americans on Trial

  • VOA News

FILE - Jeffrey Fowle is shown in this City of Moraine handout photo.

FILE - Jeffrey Fowle is shown in this City of Moraine handout photo.

North Korea said on Monday it is preparing to put two U.S. tourists on trial for committing crimes against the state, dimming any hopes among their families that they would soon be released.

"Their hostile acts were confirmed by evidence and their own testimonies," said the North's official KCNA news agency, referring to Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller who are being held by the isolated country.

The report did not specify what the two did that was considered hostile or illegal, or what kind of punishment they might face. It also gave no details on when they would face court.

Though a small number of U.S. citizens visit North Korea each year as tourists, the State Department strongly advises against it.

Event-filled week in region

The announcement was the latest in a flurry of events in the volatile region as Chinese President Xi Jinping visits South Korea this week, and comes a day after Pyongyang fired two short-range ballistic missiles, defying a U.N. ban on such tests.

The visit by the head of state of its closest ally to a country with which the North is still technically at war could raise tensions.

But in part of the mixed signals sent by Pyongyang, the North offered on Monday to suspend military drills beginning July 4, if the South would call off annual joint exercises with its ally, the United States.

"The South Korean government should make a bold decision in response to our special offer and take a big step toward the new future to end the shameful past," the National Defense Commission, the North's top military body, said in comments carried by KCNA.

FILE - Tanya Fowle, right, wife of Jeffrey Fowle, listens as attorney Tim Tepe reads a statement from the family in Lebanon, Ohio.

FILE - Tanya Fowle, right, wife of Jeffrey Fowle, listens as attorney Tim Tepe reads a statement from the family in Lebanon, Ohio.

Japan has said it will respond to the missile test in cooperation with the United States and South Korea, but that it would not affect talks it is holding with the North this week on the fate of Japanese citizens kidnapped by the reclusive state decades ago.

Jeffrey Fowle, a 56-year-old street repairs worker from Miamisburg, Ohio, was arrested after entering North Korea as a tourist in late April.

North Korea's state media said in June that authorities were investigating him for committing acts inconsistent with the purpose of a tourist visit.

Diplomatic sources said Fowle, 56, was detained for leaving the Bible in his hotel room. But a spokesman for Fowle's family said the Ohio man was not on a mission for his church, the Associated Press reported.

A job application uncovered by the Dayton Daily News in Ohio said Fowle described himself as honest, friendly, and dependable.

Earlier reports in the paper said Fowle had previously traveled to Sarajevo, Bosnia and had a fascination with the former Soviet Union which led him to look for a Russian bride, whom he later married.

"Jeffrey loves to travel and loves the adventure of experiencing different cultures and seeing new places," said a statement from Fowle's family lawyer, released in early June.

"Mrs. Fowle and the children miss Jeffrey very much, and are anxious for his return home," the statement said.

Sought asylum

Little is known about fellow U.S. citizen Matthew Miller, who was taken into custody by North Korean officials after entering the country April 10, whereupon he ripped up his tourist visa and demanded asylum, according to state media.

Miller was traveling alone, said a statement from Uri Tours, the travel agency that took the 24 year-old to North Korea, published on their website.

A spokesman for the New Jersey-based travel agency told Reuters that Miller was in "good physical condition" and his parents were aware of the situation, but have chosen not to make any statement regarding their son's arrest.

In May, the U.S. State Department issued an advisory urging Americans not to travel to North Korea because of the "risk of arbitrary arrest and detention" even while holding valid visas.

North Korea's haphazard and inconsistent legal system makes it difficult to predict the outcome for the detained tourists.

The latest arrests present a conundrum for Washington. The United States has no diplomatic relations with the North, and the Swedish embassy provides limited services for U.S. citizens there.

North Korea has detained and then released other Americans in the past year, including Korean War veteran Merrill Newman, whom it expelled last December after a month-long detention based on accusations of war crimes related to his service history.

Australian missionary John Short was arrested in February this year for leaving copies of bible verses at various tourist sites during his stay.

Short, 75, and Newman, 86, were released on account of their advanced age and health condition, state media said in the wake of published confessions from the two men.

Another U.S. national, Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who had been arrested in November 2012, was convicted and sentenced by North Korea's supreme court to 15 years hard labor last year.

North Korea has twice canceled visits by Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, to discuss Bae's case.

Bargaining chips

The occasional arrests of Americans are seen by some analysts as an attempt to use them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the US.

The impoverished but nuclear-armed state has for years expressed a desire to resume discussions with Washington, including the long-stalled six-nation talks offering aid and diplomatic benefits in return for denuclearization.

But Washington and Seoul say the North should show sincerity about abandoning its nuclear weapons program before the six-party talks can resume.

Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AP and AFP.

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