North Korea's release of a detained American citizen came as its leader, Kim Jong-un, accepted the "repeated requests" of U.S. President Barack Obama, the communist country's state media claimed Wednesday.
Jeffrey Edward Fowle, one of three American citizens detained in the North, was released earlier in the day in what was seen as a gesture of goodwill toward Washington amid stalled nuclear negotiations.
The 56-year-old, who entered the North in late April, had been detained for allegedly leaving a Bible in a hotel.
"Kim Jong-un, first chairman of the National Defense Commission of the DPRK, took such a special measure as setting free Jeffrey Edward Fowle, U.S. criminal, taking into consideration the repeated requests of U.S. President Obama," the North's Korean Central News Agency said in an English dispatch, monitored in Seoul.
DPRK is the acronym of the North's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"The criminal was handed over to the U.S. side according to a relevant legal procedure," the report said.
It did not give any other reason for Fowle's release.
It was unclear if the "repeated requests" meant the U.S. president went beyond calling publicly for the release of detained citizens and made requests directly to North Korea through diplomatic channels.
The State Department was not immediately available for comment on the North's claim.
Fowle arrived in Ohio early Wednesday local time and was reunited with his family.
"We'd like to thank God for his hand of protection over Jeff these past six months," family spokesman Tim Tepe said before TV cameras as Fowle and his family members stood next to him. Fowle was treated well by the North's government and he is in good health, he said.
The North's move is unusual as many American detainees in the past have been freed only following a visit to the North by high-profile U.S. figures, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
The release was also announced first by the U.S. government, not the North, as in previous cases.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Berlin that there was no "quid pro quo" involved in the release, according to Reuters.
He also expressed hope that Washington and Pyongyang could resume talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program within the next few weeks or months, Reuters said.
The other two American detainees are Matthew Todd Miller, who was sentenced to six years of hard labor for committing "hostile" acts after entering the North in April, and Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary who was detained in late 2012 and has since been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for unspecified anti-state crimes.
The U.S. has long urged Pyongyang to release the three, saying their detention is a stumbling block to improved relations between the two countries amid long-stalled negotiations aimed at ending the communist regime's nuclear weapons program.
The widespread view has been that the North wants to use the captives as leverage to reopen negotiations with Washington.
Pyongyang has indicated such intentions, displaying the three before U.S. TV cameras in interviews where they asked their government in Washington to send a high-level special envoy to Pyongyang.
North Korea has long called for resuming the six-party nuclear talks with the U.S. without preconditions. But the U.S. and South Korea have demanded Pyongyang first take concrete steps demonstrating it would be serious about giving up its nuclear program if negotiations restart.
"We've said from day one that if North Korea wants to rejoin the community of nations it knows how to do it - it can come to the talks prepared to discuss de-nuclearisation," Kerry said during a visit to Berlin, according to news reports.
"The United States is fully prepared, if they do that and begin that process, we are prepared to begin the process of reducing the need for American force and presence in the region because the threat itself will then be reduced," he said.
In Washington, the White House said the U.S. remains focused on the two Americans still detained in the North.
"The release of all of these individuals is a top priority and something that the U.S. government has long advocated for," said Patric Ventrell, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "We continue to do all we can to secure the earliest possible release of Mr. Bae and Mr. Miller."
Ventrell also said that the overriding U.S. policy goal on North Korea is denuclearization. He said the U.S. remains open to dialogue with the North and will judge North Korea by its actions, not its words. He added that Washington is not interested in talks for the sake of talks, he said.
"U.S principles in this regard remain the same and unchanged; North Korea must show it is serious and prepared to abide by its commitments, particularly concerning denuclearization, before authentic and credible negotiations are possible," he said. (Yonhap)