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US Calls for Release of Detained Americans in North Korea

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

The United States has called for the release of three detained Americans after North Korea announced its intention to try two of them for committing “hostile acts” against it.  The announcement comes as Washington indicates it plans to go ahead with joint military exercises with South Korea later this year, despite the North’s call they be cancelled to improve inter-Korean relations.

North Korea Monday announced its intention to try 56-year old Jeffrey Edward Fowle and 24-year old Matthew Todd Miller, who entered the country as tourists in April, saying "suspicions about their hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their testimonies."

Miller allegedly tore up his visa on his arrival in Pyongyang April 10 and demanded asylum. Fowle, who entered North Korea April 29, is accused of perpetrating activities that violate North Korean law. Diplomatic sources say he left a Bible in his hotel room.  Korean-American Kenneth Bae, arrested in November 2012, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor after being convicted of trying to topple the state.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki Monday said Washington is aware of reports regarding Miller and Fowle facing trial.

"There’s no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad.  Out of humanitarian concern for Mr. Fowle and Mr. Miller and their families, we request North Korea release them, so they may return home.  We also request North Korea pardon Kenneth Bae and grant him special amnesty and immediate release, that he may reunite with his family and seek medical care," said Psaki.

U.S. envoy Robert King has twice been denied entry into North Korea to discuss releasing Bae, who is believed to be in ill health.

Psaki says the Embassy of Sweden, which handles U.S. interests in North Korea, visited Fowle June 20 and Miller twice, on May 9 and June 21. In May, the United States issued a travel warning advising Americans to avoid travel to North Korea, saying they face the prospect of arbitrary arrest and long-term detention.

Psaki also indicated the United States has no plans to cancel joint military drills with South Korea, called "Ulchi-Freedom Guardian," that are scheduled to begin in August.  Pyongyang’s National Defense Commission demanded they be suspended, while proposing the two Koreas halt all military hostilities ahead of the Asian Games hosted by South Korea in September:

"Well, broadly speaking, we certainly support improved inter-Korean relations, but with these specific exercises, these are defense-oriented and they’re designed to enhance the ability to respond to any potential contingency that could arise. They’re designed to increase readiness to defend South Korea and protect the region. So, we’ve seen these calls before and we certainly see the value in these exercises and the value in them continuing," said Psaki.

Sung-Yoon Lee, an assistant professor in Korean Studies at Tufts University, said North Korea is still able to influence international events by its statements and actions.

"We have the Chinese leader set to visit South Korea this week and that means it’s a sensitive time for China and South Korea.  Neither country wants a North Korean provocation. We also have, in recent weeks, the resumption of diplomatic talks between North Korea and Japan and, apparently, some progress on the very sensitive issue of abductees. According to South Korean news reports, in recent days, apparently there have been talks on the issue of over 1,800 Japanese women who accompanied their Korean husbands and resettled in North Korea in the late 1950s and early 60s. North Korea is talking, negotiating with Japan on sending the surviving Japanese-born women back home," said Lee.

He said he expects that will ensure a huge amount of money for North Korea, and that the North’s ability to influence such events enhances its negotiating power.

Lee said that by taking legal action against the Americans, North Korea perceives it has little to lose and potentially a lot to gain in its bargaining position with Washington.

Bruce Bennett, an analyst at the U.S.-based policy research organization The RAND Corporation, suggests that while the North wants to remain in the headlines, its latest actions may, in part, be a response to a new movie called The Interview, produced by Sony Pictures and due to be released in October. Leader Kim Jong-Un has denounced it as "an act of war:"

"It’s basically a depiction of a couple of reporters who go to interview Kim Jong-Un and try to find out about him but, before they go, they are enlisted by the CIA to kill him. So far, all they’ve (the producers) done is put out a trailer, but that trailer as of Saturday, because of North Korean complaints, had some 5-million hits on the website," said Bennett.

Kim Myong-Chol, executive director of the Center for North Korea/U.S. Peace and billed as an unofficial spokesman for the North Korean regime, is quoted as saying Kim Jong-Un may actually go see the movie when it is released. The co-star of the action-comedy film, Seth Rogan, has tweeted that he hopes Kim likes it. 

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