The State Department is offering little information on the circumstances surrounding two American tourists captured by the North Korean government, saying they’re concerned about the men as they face trial in Pyongyang.
“American citizen Jeffrey Edward Fowle entered the DPRK as a tourist on April 29 and acted in violation of the DPRK law, contrary to the purpose of tourism during his stay,” the official Korean Central News Agency reported on June 6. “A relevant organ of the DPRK detained him and is investigating him.”
Fowle, 56, is from Miamisburg, Ohio, and works in street maintenance. His family’s lawyer said in a statement last month that he “loves to travel and loves the adventure of experiencing different cultures and seeing new places.”
Matthew Miller, 24, was reportedly arrested earlier while traveling with a private guide contracted by Uri Tours. “A relevant organ of the DPRK put in custody American Miller Matthew Todd, 24, on April 10 for his rash behavior in the course of going through formalities for entry into the DPRK to tour it,” reported KCNA at the time.
Miller allegedly ripped up his tourist visa and declared he would “seek asylum” and “shelter” in the DPRK, the KCNA claimed.
Little is known about Miller. Uri Tours said that they were not able to reach the emergency contact listed on his travel application, but eventually Miller’s family got in touch with the company.
“As of last month, we believed Mr. Miller was in good health, and we have not heard otherwise. In addition, Mr. Miller’s family has reached out to us. However, they have requested that we keep the details of our communications private,” the company said in a Tuesday statement. “We have no other specific updates at this time.”
Uri Tours staff last saw Miller in Beijing, where they “saw him off to Pyongyang.”
“We cannot speak to Mr. Miller’s motivations or mental state. He did not express any special intentions in his tour application,” the company said. “…Our local partners informed us immediately of the situation with Mr. Miller and have expressed a great deal of concern.”
The State Department warns against all travel to the reclusive communist country, but tour groups offer trips for the curious. New Jersey-based Uri Tours is the exclusive American ticketing agent for Air Koryo, North Korea’s state-owned carrier.
“Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizen tourists have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention. North Korean authorities have arrested U.S. citizens who entered the DPRK legally on valid DPRK visas as well as U.S. citizens who accidentally crossed into DPRK territory,” says the most recent U.S. government warning, issued in May. “The Department of State has also received reports of DPRK authorities arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens without charges and not allowing them to depart the country. In the past 18 months, North Korea detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours.”
“Do not assume that joining a group tour or use of a tour guide will prevent your arrest or detention by North Korean authorities. Efforts by private tour operators to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens in the DPRK have not succeeded in gaining their release.”
Uri Tours, which said Fowle was not with their group, said “regarding how these recent detentions affect travel to the DPRK, safety is our highest priority and we continue to take all necessary precautions in running our tours.”
“However, we believe that Mr. Miller’s detention is a rare and isolated occurrence, and we continue to operate our tours at this time. We have since had several tours in the country and all of our tourists (many Americans included) have returned home safely.”
Pyongyang said Monday that the government would put Fowle and Miller on trial.
“The relevant organ of the DPRK has made investigation into American tourists Miller Matthew Todd and Jeffrey Edward Fowle who were detained while perpetrating hostile acts after entering the territory of the DPRK,” KCNA reported, styling Miller’s name in Korean convention.
“According to the results of the investigation, suspicions about their hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their testimonies,” the news agency continued. “The relevant organ of the DPRK is carrying on the investigation into them and making preparations for bringing them before court on the basis of the already confirmed charges.”
“Contact with an official looking after consular affairs, treatment, etc. in the course of investigation are being made in line with the laws of the relevant country.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that they were “aware” that the two U.S. citizens would be facing trial in North Korea.
“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 so he may reunite with his family and seek medical care,” Psaki said.
Envoys from the Swedish Embassy visited Fowle on June 20 and Miller on May 9 and June 21.
Psaki tangled with a reporter who sought more information about the case since the families had signed privacy waivers allowing the State Department to confirm the detainees’ names and talk about their cases. “We make decisions about what information is appropriate to provide in the best interests of citizens who are detained overseas,” she said.
Reports have indicated that Fowle was arrested after a Bible was discovered in his hotel room.
A devout Christian, Bae, sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor last year, thought he could help suffering North Koreans in part by leading a tour company in the special economic zones that would help reveal the people’s plight.
“I think we are focused on the health and safety and well-being of United States citizens wherever they are in the world, and we take every step to ensure they either are returned home or they are safe,” Psaki responded. “We have consular access. You know how we feel about freedom of religion and freedom of – and being able to express that.”
Psaki was asked today why Pyongyang has decided to try the men now, as the North has been test-firing missiles and has warned that the October release of the comedy The Interview, in which Seth Rogen and James Franco play journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-un, would be an “act of war.”
“I think there’s a shared concern by the United States, by other countries in the region about the bellicose rhetoric and the threats posed by North Korea,” Psaki said. “And we’re certainly concerned by the reports of yet another round of provocative weapons launches, the third in a week. These launches are intended to unilaterally heighten tensions in the region. They’ll not provide North Korea or the North Korean people with the prosperity and security it claims to seek.”
“And it’s long been the case that the ball is in North Korea’s court to change their relationship with the international community. It’s not in ours; it’s in their court. But clearly, actions like those of this past week don’t help them take steps forward in that regard.”