By Michael Ireland
Special Reporter, ASSIST News Service
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA (ANS) -- The Obama administration is believed to be working to free three Americans currently being held in North Korea, and says securing their release is a top priority.
State Department calls for release
According to CBN News www.cbn.com, State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki said they're asking North Korea to release the men out of "humanitarian concern."
"We also request the DPRK pardon Kenneth Bae and grant him special amnesty and immediate release so he may reunite with his family and seek medical care," Psaki said.
CBN reports that on Monday, Jeffrey Fowle, Matthew Todd Miller and Kenneth Bae were permitted to make statements to CNN. All three said they're being treated humanely, but pleaded for the US government to get more involved in their release.
CBN said Bae, a tour guide and missionary, was arrested in November 2012 for allegedly trying to topple the North Korean government. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years hard labor.
The CBN report said Bae says his health has deteriorated at the labor camp, where he works eight hours a day, six days a week. His sister said it's clear her 46-year-old brother is in a lot of pain.
Miller and Fowle were arrested earlier this ye ar. North Korean officials said the two would stand trial for "perpetrating hostile acts," the CBN report stated.
Fowle's crime was reportedly leaving a Bible at a hotel.
Miller, 24, was arrested in April after he reportedly ripped up his visa at an immigration facility and demanded asylum.
CBN reports that Washington communicates with the detainees via the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang because the US and North Korea have no diplomatic ties.
Americans detained in North Korea speak to CNN, ask for U.S. help
In a report by Will Ripley and Holly Yan, posted by CNN, the reporters say
the three Americans detained in North Korea spoke out about their conditions and pleaded for U.S. help in interviews with CNN in a short -- and surprise -- meeting.
Kenneth Bae, Matthew Todd Miller and Jeffrey Edward Fowle were presented to CNN's Will Ripley at a Pyongyang hotel Monday. Each was given five minutes for an interview.
All three men said they hope the U.S. government will send an envoy to North Korea to help get them out of their situations, similar to how former President Bill Clinton helped secure the release of two journalists in 2009.
CNN reported that Bae, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence for "hostile acts to bring down its government," said he is working eight hours a day, six days a week at a labor camp.
North Korea claimed Bae was part of a Christian plot to overthrow the regime, CNN said.
"Right now what I can say to my friends and family is , continue to pray for me," he said. Despite what he called "hard labor," Bae said he has been treated "as humanely as possible."
CNN said Miller, who is accused of tearing up his tourist visa and seeking asylum upon entry, implored the U.S. government for help during his interview.
He said he wanted to tell the United States that "my situation is very urgent, that very soon I am going to trial, and I would directly be sent to prison." He said he will not learn of his charges until he goes to trial.
CNN stated that Fowle, an American tourist accused of leaving a Bible in a hotel where he was staying, said he has "no complaints" about his treatment. "It's been very good so far, and I hope and pray that it continues, while I'm here two more days or two more decades," he said.
According to CNN, all three men said they have signed statements admitting their guilt. North Korean officials monitored and recorded all three interviews, and CNN was unable to assess independently the conditions under which the men were being held.
C NN reported that U.S. National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Monday that securing the Americans' release "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."
CNN stated that State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "There is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad.
"Out of humanitarian concern for Jeffrey Fowle, Matthew Miller, and their families, we request the DPRK release them so they may return home," Psaki said, using the initials for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "We also request the DPRK pardon Kenneth Bae and grant him special amnesty and immediate release so he may reunite with his family and seek medical care. We continue to work actively to secure these three U.S. citizens' release."
The CNN report explained that the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang acts as the "protecting power for issues involving U.S. citizens in No rth Korea," and the United States is in "regular, close coordination" with the embassy, she said. Swedish representatives visited Fowle on June 20, Miller on May 9 and June 21, and Bae 12 times since his detention, most recently on August 11 in a labor camp, Psaki said.
Short -- and Surprise -- meetings
The circumstances leading up to the CNN interviews were bizarre, the two reporters explained.
They said a CNN team was on a government tour about two hours outside Pyongyang when it learned it had to leave immediately to meet with a high-level government official in the capital.
The crew boarded a van to a secret location, where it found out the meeting was with the three Americans.
CNN reports that Bae's family has been pushing for his release due to his worsening health. The 46-year-old suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure and has kidney stones.
"I've been going back and forth between hospital and to the labor camp for the last year and a half," Bae told Ripley on Monday . He said his health has "been failing" over the past 1½ months.
"My hands are numb and tingling, and it's difficult sleeping at night, and I was working in the field every day," Bae said.
CNN also stated that U.S. officials have repeatedly called on North Korea to release Bae but to no avail.
CNN said that even former basketball star Dennis Rodman, who has visited North Korea and called its ruler Kim Jong Un a "friend for life," asked Kim to "do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose."
Terri Chung, Bae's sister, told CNN on Monday the video was "really difficult to watch" because her brother is generally "full of life and very cheerful. ... It is clear from the video that he is under a lot of stress. And he talks about his health failing and being in complete isolation for almost two years. And it is devastating for our family to see that on TV."
But she told "New Day" that "I think he's doing the best he can. ... Two years of being isolated and working in a labor camp, I know it is not easy. So I think you can see it is t aking a toll both physically and mentally."
The U.S. government has been working "behind the scenes to try to procure his release, and we are once again reiterating our thanks, but also too pleading with our government to continue their efforts to secure his release immediately," she added, describing her brother as a "hardworking father of three."
Chung later released a statement asking the North Korean authorities to have mercy, CNN said.
"It is in your power to release my brother. You could do it today. Please do so. He has confessed to the crimes for which he has been charged, and he has served a longer detainment than any other American since the war," Chung said.
Miller: 'I deliberately committed my crime'
The CNN report showed Miller dressed in a black turtleneck and often staring at the ground in his interview, in which Miller said he has admitted his guilt -- even though he won't learn of his charges until he goes to trial.
"But I will say that I prepared to violate the law of the DPRK before coming here," Miller said.
"And I deliberately committed my crime. I have already admitted my guilt and apologized to the government of the DPRK and I have been asking for forgiveness."
When asked why he reportedly sought asylum in North Korea, CNN reported Miller said he already discussed his motive during his investigation and that "for the interview, it is not necessary."
He expressed frustration that "there's been no movement from my government."
"The American government is known for having a strong policy of protecting its citizens, yet for my case there is still no movement," he said.
Fowle describes 'desperate situation'
CNN reported that North Korea announced Fowle's detention in June, saying he had violated the law by acting "contrary to the purpose of tourism."
"The charges are violations of DPRK law, which stems from me trying to leave a Bible," the 56-year-old told CNN's Will Ripley.
"It's a covert act and a violation of tourist rule s. I've admitted my guilt to the government and signed a statement to that effect and requested forgiveness from the people and the government of the DPRK."
Fowle said he expects his trial to start within a month. "You guys should convey my desperate situation," he said.
"I've got a wife and three elementary school-aged kids that depend on me for support."
Prisoners Ask for High-Ranking Official
VOA (Voice of America) said the three American citizens being held prisoners in North Korea have called on the United States to send a high-ranking representative to secure their release.
The three made the remarks in rare interviews set up by the North Korean government with U.S. journalists who are visiting the isolated country.
VOA said that as North Korean officials looked on, the three called for a high-profile U.S. representative to visit North Korea and make a direct appeal for their release.
Bae, who is serving a 15-year sentence, said his health is failing and Miller described his own situation as "very urgent." Miller and Fowle are awaiting trials.
VOA said the U.S. journalists from CNN and the Associated Press (AP), who were on an official visit to North Korea, say they were summoned to conduct the unplanned interviews in Pyongyang. They were given five minutes with each man, they said.
State Department calls for release
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the department was aware of Monday's developments and called on North Korea to release the Americans. She asked Pyongyong to pardon Bae and grant him amnesty so he could return to his home in Lynwood, Washington, and receive medical care.
Psaki said Swedish Embassy representatives in Pyongyang had visited all three U.S. citizens and the embassy has been in touch with the U.S. government.
VOA said North Korea sentenced Bae to 15 years of hard labor in April 2013 for "hostile acts" against the Pyongyang regime. The Korean-American Christian missionary was arrested in November 2012 while leading a group of tourists in the northern city of Rason.
Bae, 46, said he works eight hours a day, six days a week at a labor camp and is being treated "as humanely as possible." He said he spends time going between the labor camp and a hospital.
Bae's sister, Terri Chung, appealed to North Korean officials to show mercy and release her brother. She said the video interview clearly showed her brother is in a lot of physical pain and under great stress.
"It's really hard to watch," Chung said, noting her brother said he was "in complete isolation for the past year and a half. . He doesn't look like himself. He looks like he's under a tremendous amount of stress and he talks about his health failing, so all of that is really hard.''
VOA also reported that Bae's family visited Washington earlier this year to work for his release. His mother Myung-hee Bae watched her son's latest interview and came away with the same plea.
"I really wanted it to happen right now because his body no longer takes long imprisonment in labor camp clearly his body taken big toll. His body looks like it shrink a lot for me and his back aches and he got a sleep disorder, so I really ask our government to act now," said Myung-hee.
Miller, 24, allegedly tore up his visa on his arrival in Pyongyang April 10 and demanded asylum. During his interview, Miller said he has not yet been tried and will not learn what the charges against him are until his hearing.
Fowle, 56, entered North Korea April 29 and is accused of perpetrating activities that violate North Korean law. Diplomatic sources have said he left a Bible in his hotel room. The municipal worker from the Midwestern state of Ohio said he has no complaints about his treatment.
VOA went on to say the last time the United States negotiated a North Korean prisoner release was in 2009, when former president Bill Clinton returned with journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee. David Straub, the former director of the State Department's Korea desk, assisted Clinton with the negotiations. He said this time, the North Koreans are misjudging their leverage.
"If I were still in the U.S. government, I would be reluctant to be a party to sending extremely senior Americans to pick up Americans who have been incarcerated. At what point can you continue to do that? At what point does this become a benefit to the North Koreans, allowing them at any point to blackmail the United States?" said Straub.
VOA quoted Straub as saying that las t month a secret U.S. mission to North Korea was unsuccessful in getting the three men freed. He thinks the Koreans want to put more pressure on the U.S. government to send a higher level government official.
**Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.