Ohio man held in North Korea hoped to aid church

LEBANON, Ohio— An American who is back home after being detained for nearly six months in North Korea said Friday that he left a Bible in a nightclub hoping it would get into the hands of what he called the country’s underground Christian church.

Jeffrey Fowle said he traveled to the country as a tourist but saw the opportunity as a way to follow the Christian mission “to carry the Gospel to all corners of the oath.”

“I knew it was a risk, that I was taking a gamble, but I felt compelled to do that to aid the underground church in some small way,” Fowle said in an interview in his lawyer’s office.

“I felt once I left the Bible somewhere that God would take it the rest of the way into the hands of some kind of Christian organization, and I’d be able to waltz out of country fat, dumb and happy, no problem,” he said. “But God had other plans.”

Fowle, 56, arrived in North Korea on April 29. The married father of three returned home last week after negotiations involving retired diplomat and former Ohio Congressman Tony Hall. Fowle, who conducted several interviews Friday about his detention, was relaxed and comfortable during a 45-minute interview.

He said he went to North Korea to experience the country and that spreading the Gospel was a secondary motivation. He’d previously traveled to Bosnia and Mongolia, he said, saying he liked “out-of-the-way places.” He was aware of warnings about travel to North Korea but went anyway, knowing that American tourists had gone and returned over the past decade.

Fowle, an equipment operator in the city of Moraine street department, said he paid about $3,900 for the tour, plus about $700 for a flight to Beijing. He said criticisms that going on such a tour would help the North Korean government continue its oppressive ways was a “legitimate question,” but he doubted his money went far.

“My fees wouldn’t have bought a tank, that’s for sure,” he said.

Fowle said he left the Bible— with his name in it— in a bathroom under a trash bin at a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin and hoped a Christian would find it. He chose that city and the nightclub in the belief there would be less security. He bought the Korean-language Bible before his trip.

Instead, his tour guide asked the next day if anyone had left a Bible there and he owned up to it. He was detained a few days later while going through customs before departure.

Fowle was taken to a hotel for about three weeks and questioned, then moved to another facility. He wrote a confession and answered questions about his motivations. He said authorities couldn’t believe he had acted on his own, but he made clear it was his own decision. He was treated well and was comfortable but was in his locked quarters 231/2 hours a day, he said.

He was allowed to speak in September to Western news organizations, including The Associated Press, in five-minute interviews. He said he was given “talking points” for those interviews, meant to convey his “desperate situation.”

The intention, in his mind, was “to have the U.S. government or some other entity step in to help resolve that situation.”

He said he never considered going off script, although he did reject requests that he try to be more emotional and more demanding of the U.S. government. Fowle said he felt that would make his situation worse at home.

Fowle said his release came as a surprise— he thought he was about to be taken to prison— and he was told by an American who helped him escort him home that the North Korean government was responsible for his return.

Fowle said he knew there was a risk but believed it was worth taking to get the Bible into the hands of North Korean Christians. In hindsight, he said, he wouldn’t do it again.

His family suffered in his absence, especially after the city of Moraine was forced to terminate him when his leave was exhausted. His wife, Tatyana, works only part time.

But some good has come of the incident, he said, including a deeper appreciation for his family. He apologized to his wife in a letter from North Korea and has pledged to be a better, more attentive husband and father.

“You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s taken away from you forcibly,” he said. “You don’t appreciate what you’ve got.”

Fowle said he will be glad to return to his job with the city of Moraine, a Dayton suburb. The city agreed to give him his street department job back but said risky travel in the future would result in his firing. Fowle said he agrees with the requirement and has no plans for missionary work in “closed countries” in the future.

U.S. officials are trying to win the release of two other Americans who are being held in North Korea, Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae. Fowle said he had had no contact with Miller or Bae.

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