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 landed Wednesday morning at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, where he was reunited with his family. Fowle was released with help from a retired diplomat and former Ohio congressman.
Moments after Fowle, carrying two bags, stepped off a plane just after 6:30 a.m., 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 was happy and seemed thrilled to be back in the U.S.
“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 and that it was a surprise for them to see their father walk off the plane.
“The reaction from his children was priceless,” Devillier said. “They hadn’t seen their dad in some time. The expectation would be that they would get teary eyed and they did, and I did, too. It’s great to welcome him home.”
Tony Hall, a retired diplomat and 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, which has relations with North Korea, 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. Jeff needs some time right now to get adjusted to his life at home,” Tepe said, flanked by Fowle, his wife, Tatyana, and their three children.
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 to be detained by North Korea and they understand the disappointment their families are experiencing, 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 report released by the Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday 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.”
In Berlin, Secretary of State John Kerry said “there was no quid pro quo” for the release of Fowle.
The government welcomed Fowle’s return.
“The release of all of these individuals is a top priority and something that the U.S. Government has long advocated for, both publicly and privately,” said National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell. “We have followed these cases closely in the White House.”
Some analysts believe that North Korea’s calculus in releasing Fowle may reflect several larger concerns, including the regime’s efforts to counter criticism of its human-rights situation following the release earlier this year of a groundbreaking U.N. report laying out the regime’s widespread abuses against its own citizens. The European Union and Japan have been pushing a U.N. resolution to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court, and Pyongyang doesn’t want the issue to even get to a vote.
Additionally, relations between Washington and Pyongyang are particularly bad, raising the possibility that the U.S. could strengthen its sanctions against the North or call on its allies to clamp down harder.
Fowle’s release could thus be seen as an attempt to feel out Washington and see if there is any possibility of broader talks.
Analysts say North Korea has previously used detained Americans as leverage, a contention that Pyongyang denies. Washington, too, has floated the possibility of a diplomatic opening should North Korea free the detainees.
U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf would not say whether any American officials had intervened directly with the North Koreans.
“We’ll let the North Koreans speak for themselves about why did they decide to do this,” Harf said. “But we are pleased that he was able to leave, and urge the immediate release of the other two.”
The United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea and strongly warns American citizens against traveling to the country.
Jakes reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Dan Sewell in Cincinnati and Associated Press journalists Eric Talmadge and Maye-E Wong in Pyongyang, North Korea, and Jim Kuhnhenn, Deb Riechmann and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
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