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North Korea Allows Detained American To Leave


A bit of hopeful news today out of one of the world's most secretive nations - North Korea allowed one of three detained Americans to leave the country. The U.S. confirmed the release, but said little about how the negotiations proceeded. The State Department says it is focused on getting all of the Americans out. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on that effort and the man who is on his way home.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Jeffrey Fowle, a father of three from Ohio, was arrested earlier this year after leaving a bible at his hotel in North Korea. In a recent interview on CNN, he said he was desperate to get out.


JEFFREY FOWLE: I've admitted my guild to the government and have signed a statement to that effect and have also put in a request for forgiveness to the people and the government of the DPRK.

KELEMEN: Unlike other Americans held in the communist nation, the 56-year-old Fowle hadn't yet been convicted, but a State Department spokesperson wouldn't say if that was a factor in his release. Marie Harf said only that Pyongyang wanted the U.S. to move quickly.


MARIE HARF: The DPRK authorities asked the United States government to transport him out of the country. And again, in this time frame, the Department of Defense was able to offer a plane.

KELEMEN: An Associated Press photographer took a picture of a U.S. government passenger-plane on the tarmac in Pyongyang, a rare sight. A Pentagon spokesman said a military crew flew from Hawaii to North Korea to pick up Jeffrey Fowle. The State Department's Harf says the man appears to be in good health. She welcomed his release.


HARF: While this is a positive decision by the DPRK, we remain focused on the continued detention of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller and again call on the DPRK to immediately release them.

KELEMEN: Bae is a Korean-American missionary, who was leading a tour to North Korea when he was arrested in 2012. He's been sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp.

Miller was arrested earlier this year and sentenced to six years of hard labor. North Korea accuses him of hostile acts, claiming he ripped up his tourist visa at the airport and said he wanted asylum. Washington has tried to send a human rights envoy to North Korea to work on these cases, but North Korea has canceled visits in recent months.

So Fowle's release came as a surprise to many, including to a former U.S. envoy, Victor Cha, who spoke to us by cell phone as he left a meeting at the State Department today.

VICTOR CHA: The United States has been, very quietly for quite some time, trying to reach out and negotiate the release of these individuals. And the North Koreans have just been - they've just not been picking up the phone.

KELEMEN: In the past, the U.S. has had to send high-level envoys, including former presidents Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, to get detained Americans out. This time that doesn't appear to be the case. And Cha, who teaches at Georgetown University, says Fowle's release comes at a time of, in his words, churn, in North Korea after a long absence by the country's leader fueled speculation that Kim Jong-Un is in poor health.

CHA: When you get these herky-jerky patterns in behavior, that's when you think that there is some sort of debate or some sort of discussion or even some sort of infighting going on about which is the next step forward for the North Korean regime. And I think that's what we're seeing now over the past few weeks.

KELEMEN: The U.S. is again reminding Americans not to travel to North Korea. There's no U.S. Embassy there, and the State Department works through Swedish diplomats who represent U.S. interests when an American runs afoul of North Korean authorities. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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