Kim Jong-un intervenes to release American tourist in Bible flap, 2 others left behind

by Karen L. Willoughby, |
North Korean military and political officials walk in step with their country's leader Kim Jong-un. REUTERS/Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)

MIAMISBURG, Ohio (Christian Examiner) – After 40 days of absence created speculation about his health and control of the country, one of the first acts by North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un in returning to the public eye was the unusual step of intervening to order the release of Christian tourist, Jeffrey Fowle.

Fowle had been arrested May 7 by the D.P.R.K., Democratic People's Republic of Korea, after a Bible with his name and telephone number in it, and photos of him and his family, were discovered by a cleaner underneath a trash can in a rest room at a nightclub in Chongjin.

The fact that Kim Jong-un personally intervened in his release – without asking anything in return – was significant, said Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico, who has traveled to North Korea several times on diplomatic missions.

United States officials had been rebuffed by North Korea in previous attempts to negotiate the release of Fowle and two other Americans, Matthew Miller and Kenneth Bae.

Miller, 24, was arrested in September for what North Korean officials described as unspecified "hostile acts." Bae has been in prison since 2012 for prosyletizing efforts. He has been called a tour operator and also a missionary.

Fowle reunited with his family Oct. 21, and gave an interview to Dayton, Ohio, television station, WHIO, Oct. 31.

Fowle said months before his 10-day tour he was looking on for Korean language materials and found a Korean/English Bible for sale. He bought the copy, knowing immediately how he would use it.

"I thought, 'Maybe I can make this a side clandestine evangelism trip too,'" Fowle said. "I didn't tell anyone, not at church, at work, anywhere. I kept that to myself."

He admittted that he knew North Korea had been cracking down on Christian activity and that Bae had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for spreading the Word of God.

His wife Tanya, a native of Russia who also took part in the interview, said she had encouraged him to leave the Bible at home, "but he took it anyway."

"I've got a faith in God," Fowle said duiring the interview. "I believe in the Great Commission. Jesus tells us to bring the Gospel to all corners of the earth."

"I had a heart for the D.P.R.K. going back to their famine in the '90s," Fowle said. He gave $500 gift for famine relief at that time, and in further research learned the Christian church there was "very persecuted," he said.

Now, he sees his plan to leave a Bible in North Korea was naïve.

"I grossly over-estimated the number of Christians in the country and underestimated the probability of getting caught," said the city equipment operator and member of Bethel Baptist Church in West Carrollton, Ohio, told WHIO.

He'd ordered a soft drink when he went out with others of his tour to explore the northern port city, Fowle said, but his main reason for participating that evening was to leave a Bible he anticipated would be found by an underground Christian who probably wouldn't have a Bible of his/her own.

Fowle left the Bible about 9:30 p.m. on May 4. The next day the tour guide asked if anyone had left anything at the club for foreign sailors. The tour guide paused. "A Bible," he clarified.

"I confessed then," Fowle said. "They let me finish the tour, but when they said, 'Come with us,' I knew I was in trouble then."

His first three-and-a-half weeks of confinement in a locked hotel room were the worst part of his time in North Korea, Fowle said, because he was in a "communication vacuum." He was told nothing of the North Koreans' plans, and nothing about his wife and family.

"Things were not going according to my plan," Fowle said. "They were going according to God's plan, but not mine. I thought 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 the country with no problems, but God had other plans."

Once he learned that his wife had known from the beginning what had happened to him, he relaxed, Fowle said. He was moved May 31 to another locked room at a "hospitality center," which except for food sometimes too spicy for his taste, windows of frosted glass he couldn't see through, and a brief 30-minute outside period each day, was "comfortable" and the people, "accommodating."

Fowle said he didn't know why God chose to have him languish in confinement for nearly five months, but that it gave him a lot of time to think. Taking a Bible into North Korea and leaving it for a Christian to find is something he wouldn't be doing again, he said. He also will be limiting his travels to less-volatile nations.

"I made some vows about changing," Fowle said. "When things are taken away from you by force, you begin to appreciate them much more deeply: My family, my wife, my kids, my mother-in-law ....

However, Fowle is glad that his action has led to a possible political opening with North Korea.

"At the time I did what I had to do to fulfill Jesus' commission to carry the Gospel to the ends of the world," the Baptist continued. "If there is this [diplomatic] thaw, then all of this would be worth it. I'd be happy to sacrifice for that."

So far, there is no indication that the North Korea is considering any action to free Miller or Bae.

Immediately after Fowle's release, Terri Chung, Bae's sister, released a statement on behalf of Bae's family on

She said the family is hoping to talk with the State Department to get an update about Bae's case. Expressing disappointment that her brother was not released, she said "we believe, however optimistically, that this release [Fowle's] could be a sign of hope for Kenneth."

"We ask for DPRK to immediately release Kenneth, and for the State Department to do everything in its power to help facilitate his release. Kenneth, an American citizen, is a good man – a husband, father, son, and brother – and we again ask for his freedom."

There have been no public statements from the Miller family.

But Chung probably summed up their sentiments in closing her statement about North Korea's detention of her brother.

"It has already been far too long."