In the winter of 2016, as word spread that North Korean authorities were holding 22-year-old American Otto Warmbier for “hostile acts,” 58 year-old Jeffrey Fowle was watching news reports about the incident, perhaps more closely than most Americans.
“I was surprised that there was someone else getting caught up in the system again already,” he told VOA at his home in rural Ohio, about 80 kilometers from the Warmbier’s residence in Wyoming.
But Fowle and Otto Warmbier have more in common than just the state they call home.
The “system” Fowle refers to is North Korea, where in 2014, he participated in a tour sanctioned by the reclusive communist government, similar to the one Warmbier joined in 2016.
“The North Koreans lure Americans to travel to North Korea via tour groups operating in China, who advertise slick ads on the internet proclaiming no American ever gets detained off of our tours, and this is a safe place to go,” Otto’s father Fred Warmbier told journalists at a press conference last week in Wyoming, detailing what he knew about his son’s detention.
But Fowle says he wasn’t lured by the advertising, nor discouraged by North Korea’s history of holding Americans. “I like visiting out-of-the-way places,” he says, citing trips to Mongolia and Russia, where his wife is from.
An “out-of-the-way” place on Fowle’s North Korea itinerary was the northern port city of Chongjin, where he decided to leave a Korean-English bible in the bathroom of a nightclub.
“I understood it would be frowned on by the government,” but Fowle says that wasn’t enough to stop him. “Jesus says to take the gospel into all corners of the world. I was trying to do my part by taking one bible to some small corner of the world.”
He was questioned the next day by the tour group operator and North Korean guides, but Fowle wasn’t immediately arrested, and continued on the rest of the tour. Two days later, he was stopped at the airport in Pyongyang on his way out of the country.
“Going through the exit process at the airport is when they detained me, which is standard MO (modus operandi) for the North Koreans,” says Fowle. “They wait until you get to the airport and it’s always the place where you get picked up.”
He was whisked away to confinement, first at the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, then several weeks later at a North Korean “guest house” somewhere near the capital city, where he says he was isolated, but not mistreated, while authorities interrogated him about his bible, and coerced his confession.
“It was mentally and emotionally straining,” he told VOA. “It was not physically abusive at all.”
The greatest strain for Fowle was the uncertainty of how his family back in Ohio was dealing with his absence.
“I didn’t know what was happening back here. That was the worst of it.”
Fowle explained that during his ordeal, his family followed the recommendations of diplomats trying to secure his release.
“The State Department usually advises people to limit your contacts and say as little as possible because apparently of it getting back to North Korea and making things worse for the detainees.”
His friends and family gained some assurance of his condition during the limited public appearances North Korean orchestrated with the media.
“That was pretty tightly controlled and I was coached – given guidelines on what to say.”
But away from the cameras, Fowle remained in isolation with almost no contact with the outside world. He spent months worrying about the welfare of his family and wondering what the North Koreans wanted from him and the U.S. government --- something he tried to get his interpreter, a man he called “Mr. Jo," to reveal.
“He wouldn’t come up with an answer,” Fowle recalled. “I said what about a U.S. commando raid on this facility here? And he kind of said, no – not that.”
Ultimately, it was not a raid, but Swedish diplomacy that led to his release in October 2014, after spending six months in North Korea.
In the dark of night, the U.S. government jet that escorted him from North Korea delivered him back to his waiting family at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, not far from his Miamisburg, Ohio home.
He was eventually welcomed back to his job as an employee of the city of Moraine, Ohio, and eagerly returned to his church that helped his family through the ordeal.
Three years later, Fowle reflects that the episode brought his family closer together, and today, he has no regrets.
“People have asked me if I could snap my fingers and go back and erase that whole incident, would you do it? And at this point, I would say no.”
Fowle believes the North Koreans never intended to harm him, or the other Americans detained during his time there.
But in the wake of Otto Warmbier's "humanitarian release" by North Korea on June 13, Fowle is struggling to come to terms with what happened during the college student's detention that led to severe brain damage, and ultimately, his death.
“Under the circumstances, I’m troubled, and we’ve got a whole lot of questions as to what was going on in his specific case.”
Fowle says Otto Warmbier’s ordeal should be a cautionary tale for Americans considering traveling to North Korea.
“Not in today’s current political climate. I say it up and down, I do not recommend it to anybody right now.”
While they have not met, Fowle says his family continues to pray for the Warmbiers, and the three other Americans still detained in North Korea.