An American tourist who was arrested in North Korea in May after leaving a Bible in a public place returned home Wednesday as he raced into the arms of his family at an airport reunion.
Jeffrey Fowle, 56, bounded down the steps of a U.S. military plane carrying two suitcases after a predawn landing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio — about 10 miles from his home in Miamisburg.
Fowle, a father of three, made no immediate public comment after touching down or during a brief appearance later outside his home.
His attorney, Timothy Tepe, said Fowle was in “good health” and was treated well during his detention. Tepe added, however, that Fowle recognizes the “disappointment” that he was not accompanied by two other other U.S. citizens held by North Korea.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry there was “no quid pro quo” for Fowle’s release, which followed diplomatic appeals on America’s behalf by Sweden because Washington has no formal relations with North Korea.
“We are very concerned about the remaining American citizens who are in North Korea, and we have great hopes that North Korea will see the benefit of releasing them also as soon as possible,” Kerry told reporters in Berlin.
Fowle has been awaiting trial in connection with leaving the Bible. Christian evangelism is considered a crime in North Korea.
Fowle was first flown from North Korea to a U.S. naval base in Guam, said Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, on Tuesday.
North Korea demanded as a condition of his release that the American government transport Fowle out of the country within a certain “time frame,” Harf said. She declined to be more specific about how much time was allowed or what other efforts were required to secure his release.
“We welcome the DPRK’s decision to release him,” said Harf, using the acronym for the Stalinist country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“While this is a positive decision by the DPRK, we remain focused on the continued detention of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller and again call on the DPRK to immediately release them,” Harf added. “The U.S. government will continue to work actively on their cases.”
Bae, a Korean-American tour operator, has been held by North Korea for almost two years. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for religious activities allegedly aimed at undermining the North Korean government.
Miller, 24, was arrested in April. He was accused of attempted espionage and recently sentenced to six years of hard labor. He allegedly tore up his tourist visa and sought asylum when he entered the country.
North Korea, which is subject to international financial sanctions, courts tourism as a source of hard currency. Visitors are typically kept on a tight leash, escorted to monuments extolling the ruling Kim family and otherwise isolated from citizens.
Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, interpreted North Korea’s decision to free Fowle as a potential gesture to move ahead stalled negotiations over the country’s nuclear program.
“It’s a signal to the U.S.: Let’s talk,” said Richardson, who has spearheaded private contacts between North Korea and U.S. business leaders and others.
In the CNN interview, which was monitored and recorded by North Korean officials, Fowle said he had no complaints about his treatment since his arrest. He said the charges against him stemmed “from me trying to leave a Bible.” Fowle’s attorney said he was there on vacation.
“It’s a covert act and a violation of tourists’ rules,” Fowle told CNN of the Bible he left in his hotel room. “I’ve admitted my guilt to the government and signed a statement to that effect, and requested forgiveness from the people and the government of the DPRK.”
All three detained Americans told CNN that they were pleading with the U.S. government to help get them out. Fowle was the only one who had not been sentenced to prison.
The State Department on Tuesday thanked the Swedish government, whose embassy in Pyongyang represents U.S. interests in North Korea.
Katie Zezima contributed to this report.