North Korea releases American detainee

MIAMISBURG, Ohio (BP) -- An American citizen who was detained in North Korea for nearly six months for allegedly leaving a Bible in a night club has been reunited with his family in Ohio.

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Jeffrey Fowle, 56, was awaiting trial on charges of committing an anti-state crime before North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un ordered his release, the New York Times reported. Fowle met his wife and three children at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, Wednesday (Oct. 22) after flying from Pyongyang on a U.S. military plane.

"I don't know whether or not Mr. Fowle left a Bible behind or not, but if the regime accused him of doing so, it must consider the Bible to be a significant threat," Barrett Duke, vice president for public policy and research at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press in an email. "It is tragic that the regime fears spiritual truth, but that is the nature of fallen flesh. The Gospel is indeed the power of God for salvation. It is my prayer that one day soon all the people of North Korea will be free to read God's Word and that Kim Jong Un, as well, will read it and be wonderfully saved through Jesus."

A State Department spokeswoman said Fowle "appears to be in good health" but added that the U.S. cannot discuss details of his release while it is still working to obtain the release of two other Americans in North Korean custody -- Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller.

Bae is a Christian who was arrested as he led a tour group in 2012 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor on charges of "trying to build an underground proselytizing network in a plot to overthrow the government in Pyongyang," the Times reported. Miller was convicted in September of spying and sentenced to six years of hard labor after he ripped up his tourist visa. North Korea claims Miller engaged in unruly behavior in hope of being sent to a prison camp, where he could observe alleged human rights violations, according to the Times.

"We remain concerned about Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "We work very hard in a variety of ways that we don't publicly outline to get these Americans home."

Duke said of Bae and Miller, "The North Korean regime should release their other prisoners of faith and conscience too."

Fowle family spokesman Tim Tepe thanked God "for His hand of protection over Jeff these past six months" and said the family is "overjoyed."

Bethel Baptist Church in West Carrollton, Ohio, where Fowle has attended, tweeted on Oct. 21, "We rejoice in the news that Jeff Fowle has been released and will soon be reunited with his family." Bethel is not a Southern Baptist church.

The Swedish government helped negotiate Fowle's release since the U.S. has no official diplomatic relations with North Korea. The two nations remain officially at war because the Korean War was halted in 1953 only by a truce.

Commentators said Kim's order to release Fowle likely was an attempt to display strength at home and open dialogue with the U.S. The dictator has not appeared in state-run media outlets for six weeks, leading to speculation that his health was failing or he was losing power.

A statement emailed to CNN by a North Korean government official said Kim "in deference to agreement between the Supreme Leaders of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] and the U.S. granted a special dispensation for the American Jeffrey Edward Fowle, who was being indicted, to be released after his case had been dismissed."

Former Obama administration spokesman Jay Carney told CNN the statement was "a fig leaf" intended to "pin" the release on the U.S.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.
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