Authorities in North Korea on Tuesday freed U.S. citizen Jeffrey Fowle, who had been detained in the reclusive country for much of this year, apparently for evangelical activities.
Fowle, 56, who was arrested in North Korea in April and among three Americans held there, is now en route back to the United States on a Pentagon plane, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement on Tuesday.
“We can confirm that Jeffrey Fowle has been allowed to depart the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] and is on his way home to re-join his family,” Harf said.
She welcomed North Korea's decision to release him and thanked Sweden for the "tireless efforts" of its embassy in Pyongyang. The Swedish embassy represents U.S.interests in the North Korean capital as Washington has no formal diplomatic relations with the hardline communist state.
Fowle was taken into custody in April after being accused of leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the North Korean port of Chongjin, Agence France-Presse (AFP) said in a report on Tuesday.
Pyongyang harshly restricts the practice of religion in the country, frequently jailing foreign missionaries who enter the country to proselytize for Christianity or otherwise spread religious teachings outside North Korea's system of state-controlled churches.
Others still held
While welcoming Fowle’s release, Harf voiced continuing U.S. concern over the fate of U.S. citizens Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae, both now serving prison terms in North Korea, and called on Pyongyang to “immediately release them.”
Miller, 24, was sentenced in September by the North Korean Supreme Court to six years’ hard labor on a charge of illegally entering the country in April after he tore up his tourist visa at the Pyongyang airport and requested political asylum.
Bae, a Korean-American evangelical missionary believed to be in his 40s, was arrested in November 2012 and was later handed a sentence of 15 years at hard labor on a charge of plotting to overthrow the North Korean government
“The U.S. Government will continue to work actively on their cases,” Harf said.
In statements released on Tuesday, U.S. lawmakers from Fowle’s native state of Ohio hailed the release, with Congressman Michael Turner thanking the U.S. State Department “for their diligent work in bringing Jeffrey home to his family.”
“I look forward to welcoming him back to our Southwest Ohio community,” Turner said.
In a separate statement, senior U.S. senator from Ohio Sherrod Brown said, “I welcome the news that Mr. Fowle has been released and will be able to rejoin his family in Ohio."
“I commend both American and Swedish officials who worked to gain his freedom," he added.
“However, while we celebrate Mr. Fowle’s release, we must remember that two American citizens remain detained in North Korea,” Brown said.
“I urge continued diplomatic efforts to ensure all Americans are brought home safely and without further delay.”