North Korea has freed Jeffrey Fowle, one of three Americans detained by the country, and he is being flown home to his family in Ohio, according to the White House.
After departing from Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, on Tuesday, the US plane carrying Fowle flew to the Pacific island of Guam, site of a major US navy base, before leaving for the US, Marie Harf, State Department spokesperson, said.
“In this time-frame the Department of Defence was able to offer a plane,” she replied when asked if a military aircraft was used.
Harf said the release was facilitated by Swedish diplomats.
Sweden has an embassy in Pyongyang and acts as a “protecting power” for the US.
Passengers on another flight at Pyongyang airport reported seeing a blue-and-white US military passenger jet, a stars-and-stripes emblem on its tail, parked on the tarmac on Tuesday afternoon, a source in Pyongyang told Reuters.
Fowle, 56, a street repair worker from Miamisburg, Ohio, was arrested in May for leaving a bible at a sailor’s club in the North Korean city of Chongjin, where he was travelling as a tourist.
The communist state is particularly sensitive to religious proselytising.
North Korea made it a condition of Fowle’s release that the US government transport him out of the country and set a time for him to be picked up, US officials said.
Josh Earnest, White House spokesperson, said on Tuesday the US welcomed the move, but pressed North Korea to free the two remaining Americans.
“While this is a positive decision … we remain focused on the continued detention of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller and again call on the DPRK to immediately release them,” Earnest said, referring to the country’s official name of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The US will continue to work actively on those cases, he said.
Miller was arrested in April for a separate incident. The longest to be held by North Korea is Bae, a Korean-American missionary arrested in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years hard labour.
US officials declined to give details of the negotiations that led to Fowle’s release, or to speculate why North Korea released him in case it jeopardised talks over Bae and Miller.
The US has long insisted that the release of the prisoners should be unconditional and not linked to talks on North Korea’s disputed nuclear programme.