The PJ Tatler

Why Did North Korea Free American Tourist?

The State Department is staying tight-lipped about why North Korea freed an Ohio father of three before he was supposed to go on trial.

Jeffrey Fowle was seized April 29 after entering the country as a tourist and acting “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.

Reports have indicated that Fowle was arrested after a Bible was discovered in his hotel room.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters yesterday that the U.S. government sent a DoD aircraft flown by military personnel based out of Hawaii to pick up Fowle.

“What I can tell you is that, at the request of the State Department, we did provide an aircraft to effect the transportation of Mr. Fowle out of North Korea,” Kirby said.

The Korea Herald said Pyongyang’s motive for releasing Fowle was unclear.

“When it comes to the release of Fowle, it seems that there had been no consultations in advance between North Korea and the U.S.,” the paper quoted a high-ranking official at Seoul’s Foreign Ministry. “It is hard to gauge the North’s intention for the move, and it remains to be seen how the North deals with the two other American detainees.”

Those are Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in April 2013, and  Matthew Miller, arrested April 10 while trying to enter the country and recently sentenced to six years of hard labor.

Sources told the paper that Washington had alerted South Korea before it sent a plane into the North to pick up Fowle.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told CNN that they had “a time window where the DPRK asked for us to facilitate his travel home.” The plane stopped in Guam before bringing Fowle back to the U.S.

“We’re not going to get into the details of how these activities — how we work with the North Koreans or others that are trying to get these people back home with their families,” Harf said. “There are two Americans still there. We want to preserve our space to be able to bring them home, as well.”

North Korea curiously released Fowle without the apparent visit of any high-profile American to lead negotiations, such as when Bill Clinton went to Pyongyang in 2009 to secure the release of two American journalists.

“Well, you know, every case is different. You remember Merrill Newman, an American who returned home from the DPRK just a few months ago. I don’t want to speculate on how they make decisions in Pyongyang or how they decide when to release these Americans,” Harf said. “But what we are focused on is doing everything in our power, again, not always being able to talk about it publicly, to reunite these Americans with their families.”

The release comes after an extended disappearance of Kim Jong-un off the national stage, leading to speculation about whether he was gravely ill or had been deposed.

Harf said their assessment on Kim still being in power “hasn’t changed.”

“We have nothing to indicate otherwise. I know senior officials have talked about this before,” she said. “Obviously, it’s a very opaque society and we pay very close attention to it. But, again, our assessment of that has not changed.”