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Published: Monday June 30, 2014 MYT 3:25:05 PM
Updated: Monday June 30, 2014 MYT 3:25:05 PM

North Korea says to try two detained U.S. citizens

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said on Monday it would 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. It gave no details on when they would face court.

It 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 Defence Commission, the North's top military body, said in comments carried by KCNA.

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 is one of the most isolated countries in the world, but its economic backwardness and political system is a draw for some Western visitors keen for a glimpse of life behind the last sliver of the Cold War's iron curtain.

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 travelled 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.

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

Miller was travelling 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 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.

HAPHAZARD LEGAL SYSTEM

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

It 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 labour last year.

Pyongyang has detained a number of U.S. citizens in the past, using them to extract visits by high-profile figures, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton who in 2009 helped secure the release of two U.S. journalists who had secretly entered the country by crossing into the country from China.

The journalists, Laura Ling and Korean-American Euna Lee, were released after being tried by a city court in Pyongyang and given a ten-year hard labour sentence.

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

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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