TOKYO — North Korea said Monday it is preparing to try two Americans who entered the country as tourists for carrying out what it says were hostile acts against it.
Investigations into Americans Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Edward Fowle concluded that suspicions about their hostile acts have been confirmed by evidence and their testimonies, Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a short report.
KCNA said North Korea is making preparations to bring them before a court. It did not specify what the two did that was considered hostile or illegal, or what kind of punishment they might face. It also did not say when the trial would begin.
Though a small number of U.S. citizens visit North Korea each year as tourists, the State Department strongly advises against it.
Fowle arrived in the county on April 29. North Korea’s state media said in June that authorities were investigating him for committing acts inconsistent with the purpose of a tourist visit.
Diplomatic sources said Fowle was detained for leaving a Bible in his hotel room. But a spokesman for Fowle’s family said the 56-year-old from Miamisburg, Ohio, was not on a mission for his church.
His wife and three children, ages 9, 10, and 12, said they miss him very much and “are anxious for his return home,” according to a statement after his detention that was provided by a spokesman for the family.
“It’s devastating,” Sergei Luzginov, a Fowle family friend who lives in North Port, Florida, said Monday. “We are praying for him. … He loves his kids and he was very protective of his family, and it’s going to be tough for them to survive without Jeff if he’s going to be sentenced for a long time.”
Luzginov said he met the Fowle family in 2007 in Lebanon, Ohio’s Russian immigrant community. Both Luzginov and Fowle’s wife, Tatyana Fowle, 40, are Russian immigrants.
Fowle works in a city streets department.
Luzginov said Fowle’s family and friends are trying to be optimistic about the outcome of the case, “but at the same time, you know the track record that’s the (North) Korean government.”
KCNA said Miller, 24, entered the country April 10 with a tourist visa, but tore it up at the airport and shouted that he wanted to seek asylum. A large number of Western tourists visited Pyongyang in April to run in the annual Pyongyang Marathon or attend related events. Miller came at that time, but tour organizers say he was not planning to join the marathon.
North Korea has also been separately holding Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae since November 2012. He was convicted by a North Korean court and is serving 15 years of hard labor, also for what the North says were hostile acts against the state.
The latest arrests present a conundrum for Washington, which has no diplomatic ties with the North and no embassy in Pyongyang.
Instead, the Swedish Embassy takes responsibility for U.S. consular affairs in the North. State Department officials say they cannot release details about the cases because they need a privacy waiver to do so.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was aware of the reports the Americans would be tried, but had no independent confirmation. She urged North Korea to release the pair on humanitarian grounds.
“There’s no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad,” Psaki told reporters in Washington.
She said Swedish diplomats visited Fowle on June 20 and Miller most recently on June 21.
Despite the Americans having agreed to a privacy waiver, Psaki said the department would not describe the charges they are facing or provide other information on their cases.
Pyongyang has been strongly pushing tourism lately in an effort to bring in foreign cash. The tourism push has been directed at Chinese, who by far are the most common visitors to the North, but the still small number of Western tourists to North Korea has been growing.
Despite its efforts to bring in more tourists, the North remains highly sensitive to any actions it considers political and is particularly wary of anything it deems to be Christian proselytizing.
After Miller’s detention, Washington updated its travel warning to the North to note that over 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.”
It added that efforts by private tour operators to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens have not succeeded in gaining their release.
The Korean Peninsula is still in a technical state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea.