Detainee returns from North Korea, surprises family

Fowle was detained for nearly half a year in North Korea after leaving a Bible at a nightclub. Christian evangelism is considered a crime in North Korea.Associated Press
Fowle was detained for nearly half a year in North Korea after leaving a Bible at a nightclub. Christian evangelism is considered a crime in North Korea.
Associated Press

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins and Lara Jakes
Associated Press

WEST CARROLLTON, Ohio — An American arrested and held for nearly six months in North Korea for leaving a Bible at a nightclub returned home to Ohio on Wednesday to tears of joy and hugs from his wife and surprised children.

A plane carrying Jeffrey Fowle, who was released with help from a retired diplomat and former Ohio congressman, landed Wednesday morning at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, where he was reunited with his family.

Moments after Fowle stepped off the plane, his three children and wife ran from a nearby airplane hangar and shared hugs.

Base Col. John Devillier said Fowle had a tearful reunion, and that Fowle seemed thrilled.

“We had a great reunion for an American citizen coming home,” he said.

Devillier said Fowle’s family hadn’t told the children why they were being brought to the base.

“The reaction from his children was priceless,” Devillier said.

The surprise was the work of Fowle’s wife, Tatyana, who only told the children they weren’t going to school Wednesday.

“Jeff likes surprises,” Tatyana Fowle said Wednesday afternoon at a news conference in Moraine. Jeffrey Fowle stood beside her and smiled at times, but he did not make any statements or answer questions.

Tony Hall, a retired diplomat and former Ohio congressman who used his connections with North Korean officials to discuss Fowle’s case, said he was excited about Fowle’s release.

A lot of people were involved, he said, but he declined to name any of the officials in Pyongyang to whom he reached out. He said he was never asked by either the U.S. or North Korea to go to Pyongyang on Fowle’s behalf.

The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, along with China and Japan and envoys from Mongolia, were also involved, Hall said.

Hall said he got involved at the request of Fowle’s family and attorney, as well as the State Department, which led the push for Fowle’s release.

“So I spent a lot of time communicating and trying to use some of the relations I’d built up over the years,” Hall told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Outside the family’s home in rural southwest Ohio, family attorney Timothy Tepe said Fowle had been treated well by the North Korean government and needed time to adjust to life at home.
“The past 24 hours have been a whirlwind for Jeff and his family,” Tepe said.

Fowle arrived in North Korea on April 29 and was arrested in May for leaving a Bible at the nightclub, something Fowle acknowledged in interviews with the AP. Christian evangelism is considered a crime in North Korea.

He had been awaiting trial — the only one of three Americans held by Pyongyang who had not been convicted of charges.

The two others were each sentenced to years in North Korean prisons after court trials that lasted no more than 90 minutes. The three Americans entered North Korea separately.

The Fowle family, despite their joy, is mindful that two other Americans continue are detained by North Korea and they understand the disappointment their families are experiencing, Tepe said.

The city of Moraine terminated Fowle last month, but his job with the street department is available for him, Mayor Elaine Allison said Wednesday. Fowle will likely go back to work, Tepe said.

There was no immediate explanation for the release of Fowle, who was whisked to the U.S. territory of Guam, where doctors declared him in good health, before heading back to Ohio.

A Korean Central News Agency report said Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, took “a special measure” by releasing Fowle, who was referred to as a “U.S. criminal.” The report said Kim took “into consideration the repeated requests of U.S. President Barack Obama.”

Relations between Washington and Pyongyang, never warm, are at a particularly low point, and the U.S. has sought unsuccessfully for months to send a high-level representative to North Korea to negotiate acquittals for all three men.

In Berlin, Secretary of State John Kerry said “there was no quid pro quo” for the release of Fowle.

In Washington, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf downplayed suggestions that Fowle’s release could be a step toward a diplomatic thawing between North Korea and the U.S. She said the Obama administration remains keenly focused on whether North Korea will engage in negotiations to end its nuclear weapons program.

“The ball is in their court in terms of that,” Harf said of Pyongyang. She said Fowle’s release “is a positive development on one case. But we need to see positive developments on the other cases. We need to see any steps towards denuclearization, which we haven’t seen.”