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Family of American detained in North Korea says they are struggling, asks for mercy for him

FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 1, 2014, file image taken from video, U.S. citizen Matthew Todd Miller, of Bakersfield, Calif., speaks at an undisclosed location in North Korea. North Korea has said authorities are preparing to bring Miller and another American detainee, Jeffrey Edward Fowle, of Miamisburg, Ohio, before a court, but hasn't yet specified what they did that was considered hostile or illegal, or what kind of punishment they might face. The date of the trial has not been announced. (AP Photo/APTN, File)

CINCINNATI – The wife and three children of an American man charged with “anti-state” crimes in North Korea apologized Tuesday to the communist country and pleaded for its government to show him mercy, saying in a statement they’re “desperate for his release and return home.”

The family of Jeffrey Edward Fowle, 56, appeared at a news conference with an attorney and family friend acting as their spokesman. The family members did not speak or take questions.

The attorney, Tim Tepe, said the family is struggling to get by financially without Fowle. He told his family in a recent phone call that he fears that his job benefits will run out soon, Tepe said.

“They miss him and are desperate for his release and return home,” Tepe said.

Fowle’s wife, Tatyana, has personally written to President Barack Obama, asking for his intervention, as have his three children, ages 13, 11 and 9. She also has written to three former presidents — George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — and asked them to intercede. Tepe said only Bush has responded to those letters but that the family has gotten help from Sen. Rob Portman, Rep. Michael Turner and former Congressman Tony Hall.

Tepe said the family wouldn’t address reporters Tuesday because they don’t want to inadvertently compromise Fowle’s situation.

“We certainly don’t want to say the wrong thing, as you can imagine,” he said. “We’re just being overly cautious.”

Fowle was detained sometime after he arrived in North Korea on April 29 for what the country says are hostile acts that violated his tourist status.

He is suspected of leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin.

Tepe has said Fowle was not on a mission for his church, that he was in North Korea on vacation as part of a tour and “loves the adventure of experiencing different cultures and seeing new places.”

North Korea has said authorities are preparing to bring Fowle and another American detainee, 24-year-old Matthew Todd Miller, before a court, but hasn’t yet specified what they did that was considered hostile or illegal, or what kind of punishment they might face. The date of the trial has not been announced.

In a recent interview with an Associated Press video crew, Fowle said he fears his situation will worsen with a trial.

“The horizon for me is pretty dark,” Fowle said on Aug. 1. “I don’t know what the worst-case scenario would be, but I need help to extricate myself from this situation. I ask the government for help in that regards.”

North Korea has in the past waited for senior U.S. officials to come to the country to secure the release of some American detainees. Both Fowle and Miller suggested that intervention from the highest levels in Washington — possibly a visit by a former president — might be needed to gain their release.

The U.S., which has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and no embassy there, has repeatedly offered to send its envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, to Pyongyang to seek a pardon for other U.S. detainees but without success. They include Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who has been held since November 2012, and is serving 15 years of hard labour for what North Korea says were hostile acts against the state.

Though a small number of U.S. citizens visit North Korea each year as tourists, the State Department strongly advises against it. After Miller’s detention, Washington updated its travel warning to note that over the past 18 months, “North Korea detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours.”

A State Department official on Tuesday reiterated the agency’s previous comments about Fowle that “there is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad” and that U.S. officials are in regular, close co-ordination with representatives from the Swedish Embassy, which handles consular matters for the U.S. in North Korea.