Two US citizens are to go on trial in North Korea, charged with "perpetrating hostile acts" against the state.
56-year-old Jeffrey Fowle was detained after apparently leaving a Bible in his hotel room while on a tour of the country, while Matthew Miller, 24, supposedly tore up his tourist visa at the airport upon arriving in North Korea, shouting that he had come "to the DPRK after choosing it as a shelter."
State-controlled Korean Central News Agency has reported that investigations into, and personal statements from, both Fowle and Miller "confirmed suspicions" about their behaviour – though it has refrained from detailing exactly what this means.
Officials have, however, confirmed that Fowle – a committed Christian – was investigated for acts "inconsistent with the purpose of a tourist visit", though his family in the US have insisted he was not in North Korea for missionary purposes.
Though North Korea is often cited as an atheistic state, it has been described by the co-founder of Seoul USA – a ministry dedicated to supporting defected and underground Christians in North Korea – as "one of the most religious nations on earth".
Rev Eric Foley explains that North Korea, which has topped Open Doors' World Watch List for Christian persecution 12 years in a row, "is a unique nation...in that it's the only nation ever to be founded on a distortion of the Christian faith.
"Kim Il-Sung [the first president of North Korea; Kim Jong-Un's grandfather] grew up in a Christian home and as a result of his exposure to the Christian faith he became convinced that the apparatus of Christian worship – meeting together weekly, complete and total devotion to a divinity, and singing hymnals – could be adapted to a state religion, which in North Korea is known as Juche. It's essentially the worship of the Kim family," he told Christian Today in a recent interview.
This means that Christianity is seen as a "direct challenge" to state ideology, and practising the faith is illegal. Those found to be Christians are thrown into concentration camps, or even killed.
The Independent reports that "The latest arrests present a conundrum for Washington, which has no diplomatic ties with North Korea and no embassy in Pyongyang".
Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who ran a legal tour company in North Korea, was sentenced to hard labour for 15 years in April 2013 following accusations that he was committing hostile acts against the state and encouraging North Korean citizens to work against the government.
Despite repeated appeals for his release, he remains imprisoned and struggling with various illnesses including diabetes and high blood pressure.