WASHINGTON - North Korea has freed one of three Americans detained in the isolated country, and in a surprise move allowed a Pentagon plane to land in Pyongyang on Tuesday to fly him home.
Jeffrey Fowle, who was arrested earlier this year and is in apparent good health, "has been allowed to depart the DPRK," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, adding the 56-year-old was already on his way home.
US officials said Pyongyang had given Washington a timeframe within which to transport Fowle out of the country, and the Pentagon had decided to send in a plane to bring him home, even though Washington does not have diplomatic ties with communist North Korea, also known as the DPRK.
"We certainly welcome the decision from the DPRK to release him," said Earnest, while State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf thanked Swedish diplomats for their efforts to secure his freedom.
Fowle had been checked by doctors and "appears to be in good health," Harf told reporters, adding the plane had flown from Pyongyang to Guam and he would head next to the mainland US.
She refused to go into specifics, however, about when he was expected to arrive home in the state of Ohio.
She would also not reveal how Fowle's release was brokered, amid ongoing efforts to free the two other Americans still held, Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae, who are both now serving time in hard labour camps.
"I'm not going to confirm any details about the discussions or the ways we tried to get our American citizens home," Harf said.
Bae's sister Terri Chung said Fowle's release could be a "sign of hope" for the 42-year-old Korean-American who was arrested in November 2012 and later sentenced to 15 years' hard labour.
"Our family celebrates the release of (Fowle)... We also are in pain, as my brother Kenneth Bae remains at a labour camp in North Korea (DPRK) after two years, with an uncertain future," she said in a statement.
"While we wrestle with the disappointment that Kenneth was not brought home as well, we believe, however optimistically, that this release could be a sign of hope for Kenneth." Earlier this month, Fowle made a renewed plea for the US government to work to secure his release.
In an interview published by the pro-North Korean Japanese newspaper Chosun Sinbo, Fowle said he was extremely "anxious" that he would share the fate of Bae and Miller, who have already been tried and jailed.
Fowle entered the North in April and was detained after apparently leaving a Bible in the bathroom of a nightclub in the northern port of Chongjin.
His plea came only two weeks after Miller was sentenced to six years' hard labour by the North Korean Supreme Court.
The 24-year-old Miller was also arrested in April after he allegedly ripped up his visa at immigration and demanded asylum.
Pyongyang's agreement to allow a Pentagon plane to land in the city is astonishing given that under the 1953 armistice agreement which ended the Korean War the sides laid down their arms, but have not reached a formal peace treaty.
The North has also always reacted angrily to any joint US-South Korean military exercises, with the border dividing the two Koreas remaining one of the most heavily militarized frontiers in the world.
North Korea expert Victor Cha from the Center for Strategic and International Studies said North Korea's decision to release Fowle was surprising "given their very inflexible stance over the past several months."
It was possible his "offences may have been seen as the least severe and therefore excusable." His release could also offer hope to Miller and Bae's families "though with North Korea, one never knows," Cha cautioned.
Harf said "the US government will continue to work actively" to try to free the two remaining Americans and repeated US offers to send a State Department envoy, Robert King, to the isolated North to discuss their plight.
Washington has condemned Pyongyang over the detentions, saying the men were being held as political hostages to extract diplomatic concessions.
The North has repeatedly denied King a visa, apparently hoping a more high-profile envoy, such as former presidents Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter, will be sent to the country. Harf would not be drawn on whether any such discussion was underway.
The nuclear-armed North wants a resumption of stalled six-party nuclear negotiations, but the United States and South Korea insist it must first prove it is committed to denuclearization.