Americans’ detainment could be N. Korean ‘retribution’

New movie or North’s feeling of neglect cited by experts.

The detainment and fates of three Americans imprisoned in North Korea — including West Carrollton resident Jeffrey Fowle — might be connected in part to an upcoming Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy and to the whims of a nation feeling increasingly neglected.

International reports suggest that the North Korean government is incensed over a movie comedy titled, “The Interview,” set to be released Oct. 10, which takes satiric swipes at North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

North Korea has held Fowle since mid-May, after he visited the nation in late April as a tourist. While the official state news agency has recently said Fowle, 56, and a second captive American, Matthew Miller, 24, will be tried, there has been no word on specific charges they face. According to reports, Fowle left a Bible in a hotel room. North Korea does not permit acts it regards as proselytizing.

CNN and others see a link between the fate of the three detained U.S. citizens and “The Interview.”

A trailer for the film shows an actor apparently depicting Kim Jong-un. In another scene, characters portrayed by Rogen and Franco, trade barbs with an intelligence agent while discussing the leader. The characters attempt an assassination of Kim Jong-un, according to the British newspaper, The Independent.

“Some foreign affairs analysts believe their prosecution now may be retribution for the movie — and to goad Washington into engaging talks on weapons, trade and international aid,” CNN said in a report on its TV network and its website.

CNN said North Korea has called the film “provocative insanity” and “an act of war.”

On July 1, The New York Times reported that the detention of the Americans might be an expression of the isolated nation’s frustration “that it is no longer viewed as a front-burner issue for the United States.”

Sony Pictures Entertainment Global Communications did not respond to a request for comment.

Send another envoy

Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said one of major problems compounding the issue today is that the United States knows little of Kim Jong-un, who took office in December 2011.

“It seems like the new young leader doesn’t seem to be listening to anybody,” Richardson said in an interview with the newspaper. “He’s in a mode of consolidating his power.”

In the past, visits by prominent Americans, such as former President Bill Clinton, could be counted on to secure the release of American prisoners. Richardson thinks the U.S. State Department should try a similar course, suggesting it send Robert King, the department’s special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, to listen to North Korean officials.

In 1996, Richardson played a role in freeing Evan Hunziker, 26, from North Korean custody. He was accused of spying for South Korea and threatened with execution. Hunziker committed suicide a month after he returned to Tacoma, Wash.

Richardson also secured a pardon for an American imprisoned in Bangladesh.

“It can be an unpredictable situation,” Richardson said of the fate of the three Americans. “I do think in the end, Fowle will come out.”

The 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.

U.S. seeks release

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is 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. But details of those visits have not been released.

Still, officials are troubled by the issues. On June 18, U.S. Rep Mike Turner, R-Dayton, wrote President Barack Obama to express his concern over the situation. This newspaper is the only media outlet that was provided a copy of the letter, according to Turner’s office.

Turner wrote Obama that — with Fowle having been detained for more than a month at the time of his writing — “I am becoming increasingly skeptical of North Korea’s intent to resolve this matter in a manner consistent with international law and human rights standards.”

“The United States must take immediate action to resolve this issue and ensure that the unlawful detention of American citizens abroad not be tolerated,” Turner wrote.

The third detainee, Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, has been held since November 2012 and is serving 15 years of hard labor for what North Korea says were hostile acts against the state.

A spokesman for Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said the senator has neither written to the State Department nor to the president, but he did speak on Thursday with Fowle’s wife, Tanya. Details of their conversation were not released.

After Fowle’s detainment became public in late May, Lebanon lawyer Timothy Tepe said Fowle was traveling as a tourist in North Korea. He said neither he nor the Fowle family would comment on the situation and has maintained that their privacy be respected until the case is resolved.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Thank you for reading the Springfield News-Sun and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.

Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Springfield News-Sun. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.