North Korea gave foreign media access on Monday to three detained Americans, who said they have been able to contact their families and — watched by officials as they spoke — called for Washington to send a high-ranking representative to negotiate for their freedom.
Jeffrey Fowle and Mathew Miller said they expect to face trial within a month. But they said they do not know what punishment they could face or what the specific charges against them are. Kenneth Bae, who already is serving a 15-year term, said his health has deteriorated at a labor camp, where he works eight hours a day.
The three were allowed to speak briefly with The Associated Press at a meeting center in Pyongyang. North Korean officials were present during the interviews, conducted separately and in different rooms, but did not censor the questions that were asked. The three said they did not know they were going to be interviewed until immediately beforehand.
All said they believe the only solution to their predicament is for a U.S. representative to go to North Korea to make a direct appeal. That has often been North Korea's way of handling such matters, and senior statesmen such as former President Bill Clinton have made trips to Pyongyang to secure the release of detainees.
The White House said on Monday that it was continuing to do all that it can to secure the men's release.
"We have seen the reports of interviews with the three American citizens detained in North Korea," Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement. "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."
North Korea says Fowle and Miller committed hostile acts that violated their status as tourists. It has announced that authorities are preparing for trial, but it has not announced a date.
Fowle arrived in North Korea on April 29. He is suspected of leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin. Christian proselytizing is a crime in North Korea. Fowle, 56, from Miamisburg, Ohio, has a wife and three children, age 9, 10 and 12.
"Within a month I could be sharing a jail cell with Ken Bae," he said, adding that he hasn't spoken with his family for three weeks. "I'm desperate to get back to them."
North Korea says Miller, 24, entered the country on April 10 with a tourist visa but tore it up at the airport and shouted that he wanted to seek asylum. Miller refused to comment on whether he was seeking asylum.
Bae, a 46-year-old Korean-American missionary, has been held since November 2012. He was moved from a work camp to a hospital because of failing health and weight loss but last month was sent back to the camp, outside Pyongyang, where he does farm-related labor, he said. He added that he has lost 15 pounds and has severe back pain, along with a sleep disorder. His family has said his health problems include diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems and back pain.
"The only hope that I have is to have someone from the U.S. come," he said. "But so far, the latest I've heard is that there has been no response yet. So I believe that officials here are waiting for that."
Bae said he did not realize before the trial that he was violating North Korean law, but he refused to go into details.
He said the lead-up to his trial lasted about four months but the trial itself only took about an hour. He said he elected not to have a defense attorney because "at that point there was no sense of me to get a lawyer, because the only chance I had was to ask for mercy."
"It was very quick," he said.
The U.S. has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, to Pyongyang to seek a pardon for Bae and other U.S. detainees. North Korean officials canceled King’s visit just days before he was to arrive in Pyongyang. State Department officials then said that they were "surprised and disappointed" but did not offer any further explanation as to why Pyongyang rescinded its invitation.
North Korea and the United States do not have formal diplomatic relations, and their tenuous ties have been strained even further by Pyongyang’s occasional launching of long-range rockets and a nuclear test conducted in February 2013 in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions. When sanctions were subsequently tightened, North Korea issued dire threats against the U.S. and its allies.
North Korea, analysts say, has used detained Americans as bargaining chips in its standoff with the U.S. over its nuclear and missile programs. Multinational aid-for-disarmament talks have been on hold since 2009, and efforts by Washington to negotiate a freeze in the North's nuclear program in exchange for food aid collapsed 18 months ago.
Two senior White House officials reportedly made secret visits to North Korea in 2012 in an effort to improve relations with the government of young leader Kim Jong Un, but they apparently made little headway.
Fowle and Miller said they have met with the Swedish ambassador in Pyongyang, charged with handling U.S. consular affairs in North Korea, and have been allowed to make phone calls to their relatives.
Though a small number of U.S. citizens visit North Korea each year as tourists, the State Department strongly advises against it. After Miller's detention, Washington updated its travel warning to note that over the past 18 months, "North Korea detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours."
North Korea has been strongly pushing tourism lately in an effort to bring in foreign cash. Despite its efforts, it remains highly sensitive to any actions it considers political and is particularly wary of anything it deems Christian proselytizing.
In March, North Korea deported an Australian missionary detained for spreading Christianity after he apologized and requested forgiveness. In November 2013 an 85-year-old Korean War veteran from Palo Alto, California, was detained while visiting North Korea and held for little over a month before his release after signing a confession admitting to war crimes.
Al Jazeera and wire services