WASHINGTON — Three American citizens detained in North Korea appealed on Monday to the U.S government for help returning home, speaking in rare interviews set up by the North Korean government.
The three men, one serving a 15-year sentence and two awaiting trial in the isolated country, spoke to a visiting CNN reporting crew in tightly controlled circumstances. One of them said his health was failing and another described his situation as “urgent.”
The three men said they were being treated humanely but asked the U.S. government to get more actively involved in helping resolve their situation.
Responding to the interviews, the U.S. State Department urged Pyongyang to release the men, and said Washington was working actively to try to secure their return home.
“Out of humanitarian concern for Jeffrey Fowle, Matthew Miller, and their families, we request the DPRK release them so they may return home,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement, using the formal acronym for North Korea, and referring to the two men awaiting trial.
“We also request the DPRK pardon Kenneth Bae and grant him special amnesty and immediate release so he may reunite with his family and seek medical care,” she added.
Bae, a Christian missionary and tour operator who was arrested 18 months ago, told CNN he has spent the time “going back and forth” between hospital and a labor camp. “I ask the U.S. government and people out there to really put in effort to send somebody, to make it work,” Bae said.
The White House also said it was doing all it could to secure the release of the three, but did not say how the appeal in the CNN interviews might change Washington’s approach.
“Securing the release of U.S. citizens is a top priority and we have followed these cases closely in the White House. We continue to do all we can to secure their earliest possible release,” Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement.
The interviews appeared to be an attempt by Pyongyang to open a possible way forward for the release of the men, although it was unclear how Washington would respond.
The two countries have no diplomatic ties — Washington communicates with the detained men via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang — and have long been at odds over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and other issues.
However, Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who has traveled to North Korea in the past to help retrieve previously detained Americans, said he thought the interviews could be a good sign.
“I see a light at the end of the tunnel because the fact that the North Koreans have put this up so openly that ‘we’re ready to talk’ by the interviews, I think is a good sign,” Richardson said on CNN.
“It was a clear signal, they know that your interview will be broadcast around the world, that’s the way they communicate to the U.S. government because the U.S. government has basically said, ‘We’re not going to talk to you unless you take some steps on the nuclear front.’”
In 2013, the State Department planned to send a special envoy to Pyongyang to try to negotiate a release of Bae and at the time insisted the nuclear negotiations and the human rights negotiations over Bae’s jailing were unrelated.
North Korea has twice canceled visits by Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, to discuss Bae’s case.
The interviews broadcast on Monday were conducted under close control. The CNN crew — which was in Pyongyang to cover a wrestling match organized by a Japanese politician — was ferried to a hotel and told at the last minute by the authorities who it would be filming.
CNN reporter Will Ripley said officials told the crew that each interview would be conducted separately, would last five minutes and would address limited topics, including any message the men might have for their families or the U.S. government.
It was not clear to what extent the detained Americans were speaking freely, although they all had similar messages and Ripley said that the rooms where the interviews were conducted were full of North Koreans watching.
In his interview, Bae said his health was failing and he was working eight hours a day, six days a week. Sentenced to 15 years hard labor for attempting to bring down the state, he told CNN he was the only inmate at a prison camp staffed by more than 20 officials, including a doctor.
Miller and Fowle, who were arrested this year while on tourist visits, said they were being treated well as they awaited trial.
“My situation is very urgent,” said Miller, from Bakersfield, California, who was arrested in April when he ripped up his tourist visa upon entry to North Korea and said he was seeking asylum, state media said at the time.
“Very soon I am going to trial, and I [will] directly be sent to prison,” Miller said.
Fowle, a middle-aged man from Miamisburg, Ohio, said he was being treated well: “I hope and pray that it continues, while I’m here, two more days or two more decades.”
He was arrested in May after he left a bible under a bin in the toilet of a sailor’s club in the northeastern city of Chongjin.
Fowle and Miller gave an interview to the Associated Press in August, also calling on the U.S. government to help secure their release.