An American man detained in North Korea for nearly six months over charges of promoting Christianity by leaving a Bible in a nightclub has been released, the State Department confirmed Tuesday. Two other Americans who have been tried and convicted of crimes in North Korea are still being held.
Jeffrey Fowle, 56, of Miamisburg, Ohio, had been awaiting trial in the country for engaging in Christian evangelism in the northern port city of Chongjin last May. He was flown out of North Korea on a U.S. government jet that was spotted Tuesday by Associated Press journalists at Pyongyang's international airport.
The Swedish government — which acts as a protective power, providing American citizens with consular assistance in lieu of a U.S. embassy in the isolationist state — helped negotiate Fowle's release.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest urged Pyongyang to release two other Americans being held in North Korea, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller.
"The U.S. will continue to work actively on them," he said.
Earnest said the Defense Department had provided transportation to Fowle on a schedule that the North had specified.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Fowle was on his way home to his family. "We welcome the DPRK's decision to release him," she said in a statement, using the abbreviation for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Harf also thanked Sweden for "tireless efforts" by its embassy in Pyongyang.
Fowle arrived in North Korea on April 29 and was arrested in May for dropping off the Bible. Christian evangelism is considered a crime in North Korea. Fowle is an equipment operator for the city of Moraine, Ohio, and has a wife and three children. His wife is from Russia and had made a written appeal on her husband's behalf to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Miller, 24, was convicted on Sept. 14 of entering North Korea illegally to commit espionage. He was sentenced to six years of hard labor. Bae, a 46-year-old Korean-American, is serving a 15-year sentence for alleged and unspecified "hostile acts."
Washington has repeatedly tried to send a high-level representative to North Korea to seek release of the three men. Pyongyang had refused as recently as last month, according to Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues.
The three Americans entered North Korea separately. In interviews last month with the AP, all three said they believed the only solution to their situation was for a U.S. representative to come to North Korea to make a direct appeal.
In 2009, North Korea detained two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were later freed after former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Pyongyang. In 2011, former President Jimmy Carter went to North Korea to win the release of imprisoned American Aijalon Gomes, who had been sentenced to eight years of hard labor for crossing illegally into North Korea from China.
King, the American human rights envoy to North Korea, said last month that Washington would not give in to attempts to "extort" political gain from the detentions. Analysts say North Korea has previously used detained Americans as leverage in its standoff with the U.S. over its nuclear and missile programs, a charge that Pyongyang denies.
But Washington also has floated the possibility of a diplomatic opening in ties between the two countries should North Korea free the detainees.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press