North Korea paraded three American detainees before foreign media in Pyongyang on Monday, appearing to let them speak freely about their plight.
The Americans, who were interviewed in three different rooms, said they have been able to contact their families. They also said they believed a U.S. official needed to come to North Korea to help gain their freedom. North Korean officials were present during the interviews, but didn’t censor any questions. It’s not clear whether the prisoners were told beforehand what they could, or couldn’t, say.
Kenneth Bae, 46, who is serving a 15-year sentence, said he works eight hours a day in a labor camp. He has been detained since November 2012. He said the hard labor is affecting his health, and reporters noted it looked as if he was experiencing severe back pain. Bae’s family said previously he suffers from diabetes, an enlarged heart, liver problems, and back pain. His sister Terri Chung expressed concern about his health in a statement yesterday.
“As an incredibly friendly and social man, the psychological pain of isolation and worry for his family must weigh on him as much as the physical agony,” Chung said in the statement, adding that it is high time he was released. “He is normally cheerful—larger than life—but I could not see that man today.”
The two other Americans, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller, expect to be brought to trial within the month, but no date has been set at this point. Neither are sure what sentence to expect or what the exact charges are. North Korea has accused both of hostile acts that violated their tourist status.
Fowle, 56, entered North Korea on April 29, and is suspected of leaving a Bible behind at a bar. He and his wife have three children, ages 9, 10, and 12.
“Within a month, I could be sharing a jail cell with Ken Bae,” Fowle said, adding that he hasn’t spoken with his family in three weeks. “I’m desperate to get back to them.”
North Korea said Miller, 24, tore up his tourist visa at the airport and claimed asylum when he entered the country on April 10, a charge Miller wouldn’t comment on.
The United States has no diplomatic ties with North Korea, but has offered multiple times to send its envoy for North Korea human rights issues, Robert King, to find a resolution. The Swedish Embassy takes responsibility for U.S. affairs in North Korea, and Fowle and Miller have met with Swedish ambassadors.
Despite the fact that North Korea has been pushing tourism, it remains sensitive to what it considers hostile acts, and the U.S. State Department has issued warnings against visiting the country, noting it has detained foreigners who were part of organized tour groups on multiple occasions.