BEIJING — Two U.S. citizens detained in North Korea face prosecution for "hostile acts" against the country, North Korea's state news agency KCNA said Monday. Suspicions about the two men were confirmed by evidence and their own testimony, said KCNA, without offering any details or a trial date.
The move to put Jeffrey Fowle, 56, and Matthew Miller, 24, on trial — both entered North Korea as part of separate tourist trips earlier this year — could result in long jail terms. Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, 45, is serving a 15-year sentence of hard labor in North Korea for similar alleged "hostile acts."
But the decision to prosecute may instead serve as the prelude to eventual release as has happened with other foreigners held in recent months by the highly isolated and super-sensitive regime.
U.S. Korean War veteran Merrill E. Newman was released in December after more than a month of detention and a confession he later said was coerced. In March, Pyongyang expelled Australian missionary John Short after he confessed to distributing Christian leaflets.
Both Short, 75, and Newman, 85, were released partly because of their age, said North Korea.
News of the indictment came a day after the North displayed characteristically belligerent behavior by firing two short-range ballistic missiles, in defiance of a United Nations ban. The missile test was deliberately timed just ahead of a visit to the South Korean capital, Seoul, this week by Chinese President Xi Jinping, said Tong Kim, an international relations expert at Korea University in Seoul.
"As usual (North Korea) is using multiple ways to seek attention," said Kim. Pyongyang is also sending a warning message to China, Kim said. " 'Don't forget us, don't sell us out.' "
KCNA said earlier that Miller entered North Korea April 10 with a tourist visa, which he then tore up at Pyongyang airport, and shouted that he wanted asylum. Fowle arrived on April 29. Japan's Kyodo News reported he was later detained for leaving a Bible in his hotel room. A family spokesman said Fowle was not on a mission for his church, according to the Associated Press.
Miller was traveling with New Jersey-based Uri Tours, one of a small but growing number of specialist firms that offer travel to this little-visited nation, whose regime has threatened nuclear strikes against the USA.
In an updated travel warning in May, the U.S. State Department said it "strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea." But U.S. citizens have become the single largest category of Western visitor, said Simon Cockerell, managing director of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, the most well-established operator of trips to North Korea. At least one quarter of North Korea's estimated 5,000-6,000 Western tourists in 2013 were from the USA, he said.
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman's frequent visits with North Korea's leader Kim Jong un have spurred U.S. interest, Andrea Lee, CEO of Uri Tours, told USA TODAY in January. "It can be a heavy trip, with a lot to digest, and some people aren't ready for it," she said, but others form a strong bond with their guides. "North Koreans say: 'We hate American policy, we don't hate American people,' " she said.
In recent years, North Korea has sometimes released detained Americans after visits by U.S. heavyweights, said Korea University's Kim. "But I don't see any chance for Washington to change its position on human rights, nuclear and security issues," he said.