About the Author
View more articles by Justin Rohrlich
Justin Rohrlich is an Emmy Award winning journalist with a keen interest in North Korean affairs
Arrested last January for allegedly attempting to steal a political banner from a Pyongyang hotel, Otto Frederick Warmbier, a 21-year-old college student from Cincinnati, Ohio, has now spent nearly eight months locked up inside North Korea.
One of the people trying to get Warmbier freed is David Sugarman, a pro sports agent and social activist who was behind the successful #BringBaeBack campaign, which helped raise the public’s awareness of Kenneth Bae, the Lynnwood, Washington missionary arrested in 2012 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the North Korean government in a “religious coup d’etat.”
“For whatever reason God has blessed me with the ability to assist in prisoner releases with other people and I believe it’s my calling and destiny to do it,” Sugarman told Cincinnati Public Radio in April.
In Jeffrey Fowle’s case, it was a calling from God that landed him in prison to begin with. The 56-year-old road maintenance worker from Miamisburg, Ohio was arrested in 2014 for planting a Bible underneath a trash bin in the bathroom of a seamen’s club in the port city of Chongjin, and spent six months detained in the North Korean capital. Fowle spoke to NK News about his ordeal, revealing new details of his captivity while shedding a bit of light on what Warmbier might be going through.
Like Warmbier, Fowle’s troubles began with a bad idea, followed by a sloppy execution. He had written his name, address, and phone number inside the front cover of an Korean-English Bible, purposely leaving off the area code,” which Fowle says he thought would give him a modicum of “plausible deniability like, like I had just put my information in there for identification purposes in case I ever lost it.”
Like Warmbier, Fowle’s troubles began with a bad idea, followed by a sloppy execution
Fowle, who attends two church services every Sunday at two different churches, also forgot about the family photos he also accidentally left inside the Bible. When it was discovered a short while later, there was little question who had done the “crime.” At first, Fowle tried to keep the ruse going, saying the Bible must have accidentally fallen out of the pocket of his leather bomber jacket. When it was pointed out that the large Bible fit far too snugly in the small pocket for this to be at all plausible, Fowle owned up to everything.
They would be leaving Pyongyang in the morning, and Fowle was instructed by the guides, who seemed to have been able to smooth things over with their North Korean hosts somewhat, to be on his best behavior.
The next day, as the group was boarding a flight back to China, two North Korean security agents approached Fowle and hustled him into the backseat of a black Volkswagen Passat waiting outside the terminal. They sat on either side of him; an interpreter Fowle would come to know as Mr. Jo, sat up front with the driver. No one said a word, and Fowle couldn’t get any of them to make eye contact with him.
They pulled into a subterranean garage beneath the Yanggakdo Hotel. Fowle was taken up to suite 205 on the 36th floor, where he would spend the first 3 ½ months of his six-month captivity.
The front room contained a table and four chairs, which is where Fowle was interrogated, or as he says, “interviewed,” two to three times a day. It was manned 24/7, and he wasn’t allowed to leave the adjacent bedroom unaccompanied.
Since the United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea, Sweden, the protecting power for the United States in the DPRK, took the lead. The U.S. State Department told Fowle’s Russian-born wife Tatyana not to discuss details of his detention with anybody, and to keep her contact with the media to a minimum.
“‘We’re doing what we can behind the scenes,’ and that’s about all they told her, actually,” says Fowle.
Of the ten or so people keeping watch over Fowle, three were responsible for interrogating him: Short Mr. Kim, Tall Mr. Kim, and “Mr. 56,” who refused to tell Fowle his name.
“Mr. 56 told me that he’d worked on other detained foreigners before,” says Fowle. “The guy who walked into North Korea from China,” — missionary Aijalon Gomes, arrested in 2010 — “and those two journalists,” — Euna Lee and Lisa Ling, arrested in 2009. “He was Mr. 56 in my mental Rolodex; he was also 56 years old, same as me. That’s what he told me, anyway.”
Through Mr. Jo, the two Kims and Mr. 56 tried to zero in on Fowle’s true motivations. Why Chongjin? they demanded. Was he part of a secret in-country network of underground Christians? With whom exactly was he trying to make contact? What was the name of the organization that sent him there?
“Most of the (detainee minders)…told me they normally gave tours for KITC (the government-run Korean International Tourism Company, which accompanies all foreign groups), but got drawn into this as a temporary thing,”
He wasn’t part of any organization, Fowle insisted. And although his initial plan to leave the Bible in a “more public place” than a men’s room stall in an isolated port town, Fowle says he was forced to act in Chongjin because, “We were getting ready to leave, and it was now or never.”
That first night, Fowle watched TV to try take his mind off his predicament, and was pleased to find NHK, BBC, and a handful of Chinese channels in addition to North Korea’s state-run stations. The next morning, a maintenance worker came in to install a filter, restricting Fowle to only three local North Korean propaganda channels.
Fowle says he was given pen and paper and forced to “write, write, write, all I did was write.” His confession didn’t have enough oomph for his interrogators, no matter how many times he rewrote it. His days became an endless loop of revisions, receiving details and ideas to incorporate into his admission of guilt from the Kims and 56, who would then further shape Fowle’s story to their satisfaction.
Everything but a few articles of clothing, a toothbrush, and a comb had been confiscated from Fowle and meticulously inventoried by his minders. He clipped his nails with a Swiss Army knife a tourist had given Mr. Jo, and shaved with Mr. Jo’s electric razor, which he told Fowle was a gift from a tourist, as well.
“Most of the guys there with me told me they normally gave tours for KITC (the government-run Korean International Tourism Company, which accompanies all foreign groups), but got drawn into this as a temporary thing,” Fowle says. “They wanted to get back to that, and I was sort of delaying their main line of work.”
Fowle was provided three Korean-style meals a day at the Yanggakdo “like any regular tourist would eat.” Western-style food was available by request, but Fowle was told he would have to pay extra for that. He’d also have to pay extra for laundry service, so Fowle, who was instructed to wear business attire to his interrogation sessions, washed his clothes in the shower and hung them up to dry.
At the end of June, Fowle was abruptly driven to the nearby Pothonggang Hotel for a meeting with someone the North Koreans would only identify as “a third party.” This turned out to be Swedish Ambassador Karl-Olof Andersson, who came bearing a care package of sorts for Fowle, including a letter from Tatyana, whom Fowle calls “Tanya,” and their three kids.
“I was elated that at least Tanya knew what the situation was, at least rudimentarily, and that my family wasn’t in the dark,” says Fowle, who hadn’t yet been able to call home. “There was also a Milka bar in there, a Swedish candy. I figured my wife told them I was a fan of chocolate. When the ambassador handed it to me, Mr. Jo reached out and grabbed it before I could. He let me have it a couple of days later.”
The package also contained a British printing of an Ernest Hemingway anthology, which had been sent along by the staff at Koryo Tours. When Mr. Jo later remarked on the fact that the book had come from Fowle’s family, Fowle pointed out that the price printed on the back cover was in pounds sterling, not U.S. dollars, and that it probably hadn’t.
A 30-minute call home cost Fowle $140, payable on the spot, in cash
“Mr. Jo said, ‘We need to review this,’ and I never saw it again after that,” Fowle says. “Because the source was a little bit different than what they had been told by the Swedish embassy or whatever, it was ‘not good for me to have.’”
A 30-minute call home cost Fowle $140, payable on the spot, in cash. He had about $700 with him but chose not to use the phone again, explaining, “At that time, I still figured they’d dump me off in Beijing somewhere and I’d have to pay my way back to the States, so I was trying to conserve money.”
Fourteen weeks after he arrived at the Yanggakdo, Fowle was instructed to pack up his belongings and get ready to go. After his few possessions were checked against the inventory list, Fowle was driven to what has been described in the media as a guesthouse, but says it was “more like a business facility, with suites in it.” He would spend the rest of his detention there, confined to a small bedroom, which locked from the outside, for 23 hours a day. The room’s only window was “fogged over with a plastic film,” isolating Fowle even more.
During his first few days in the compound, Fowle says he heard “raised voices, like someone was being roughed-up verbally.” At first he thought it was “mental training for the staff or something like that,” but he now believes he was listening to Matthew Miller, the 21-year-old American arrested for ripping up his visa on arrival at Pyongyang International Airport that past April, being punished for getting out of line.
Although he says his minders took great pains to keep them apart, Fowle saw at least one trace of who he assumes was Miller.
“Someone had scratched the words ‘No schoolboy’ inside a desk drawer, in English,” Fowle says. “It brought to mind a phrase used by one of my interrogators. When he didn’t like my line of reasoning, he would say, ‘You’re using schoolboy logic.’”
“Someone had scratched the words ‘No schoolboy’ inside a desk drawer, in English”
The windows in the interrogation room weren’t frosted over, and Fowle savored any quick glimpse he could get of the outside world. His brother’s wife sent him a week’s worth of crosswords and Sudoku she cut out of the local paper, which Fowle says spooked his minders. From then on, Fowle never got any more puzzles, and his subsequent letters asking for more never got to his sister-in-law.
“I later found out the North Koreans asked the State Department not to let them send any more puzzles,” says Fowle. “I think they thought it was some kind of code.” (Fowle no longer uses the Yahoo email address he had when he went to North Korea, as the North Koreans extracted his login details during an interrogation session and Fowle assumes they are still monitoring his account.)
The Kims and 56 told Fowle that he would soon be going to trial. There was no doubt he’d be found guilty, and Fowle’s next stop would be prison, they said. Fowle had no reason not to believe them, and began preparing himself for the worst.
Toward the end of October, Mr. Jo appeared at Fowle’s door with Short Mr. Kim and told him to pack his things again.
“They brought down the suitcase I hadn’t seen in six months, and they kept saying, ‘Come on, hurry up, we’ve got to get going,’” Fowle said. “Short Mr. Kim was smiling slightly. I thought, ‘Oh, here we go, I’m going off to prison now.’ I was kind of ticked off.”
After the contents of his luggage were checked against the North Koreans’ inventory list, Fowle was taken to the Pothonggang Hotel, where Fowle met previously with Ambassador Andersson. He had given interviews to CNN and the Associated Press a month earlier at the same hotel, so Fowle assumed the North Koreans milling around with cameras were local media. He noted one Westerner among the crowd, and took him for a European journalist.
Suddenly, Fowle says, “This North Korean guy in a suit comes up to me and says, ‘The First Party Chairman and Marshal Kim Jong Un have recommended that you be released. Immediately after that, the Western-looking guy and a Korean-American guy step up and say, ‘We’re from the Department of Defense, you’re going home.’ It hit me like a ton of bricks, because here I was waiting for the ax to fall.”
Two North Koreans Fowle had never seen before drove the three of them to the Pyongyang airport in a vintage Mercedes sedan, and stopped directly in front of a DoD 737 waiting on the tarmac. It had arrived according to a schedule dictated by the North Koreans.
The plane flew south over the Sea of Japan to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, avoiding South Korean airspace entirely
Once aboard, the plane flew south over the Sea of Japan to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, avoiding South Korean airspace entirely. Along the way, the flight encountered turbulence so severe, Fowle says a DoD official was taken off the aircraft on a stretcher after landing. At Andersen, Fowle and the team of roughly 20 DoD personnel accompanying him transferred to an identical 737 for the seven-hour flight to Hickam Field in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. After the plane took on fuel, Fowle was finally headed back to Ohio.
“I was able to talk to Tanya while we were over the Pacific, and I had this idea to surprise my kids at school,” Fowle says. “But that would have been impossible. I was not aware of how huge a media event this was.”
Eight hours later, Fowle’s plane landed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.
“My wife, my kids, and my wife’s mom were right at the bottom of the stairs when I got off, and a few military officials, too,” says Fowle. “I felt like getting down and kissing the tarmac, but that’s been done before,” Fowle says.
He was told that former Ohio Senator Tony Hall, an evangelical Christian who later served as the U.S. Ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture, met several times with members of North Korea’s Mission to the UN in New York City during Fowle’s detention, but says he never got any further details about why he was let go. A State Department spokesperson would say only that the government of Sweden facilitated Fowle’s release, and would not discuss the case due to privacy laws.
In January, Governor John Kasich sent a letter to President Obama seeking his assistance in freeing Otto Warmbier.
“The DPRK has made a regular practice of arresting and incarcerating American citizens,” Kasich wrote. “Pyongyang has used these arrests as a means by which to try to force the reopening of stalled diplomatic relations or simply to antagonize the United States.”
And while politics surely play a role, a source inside the North Korean tourism industry who was involved with both the Fowle and Warmbier cases says it’s actually fairly difficult to get arrested in North Korea.
“There’s no way Jeff Fowle actually thought it was okay to leave a Bible in a bathroom, and there’s no way Otto Warmbier thought it was okay to steal a sign off the wall of a hotel,” says the source, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of situation. “These are not weird, obscure laws, these are laws you would expect. If you don’t do anything wrong, a tourist in North Korea isn’t in any danger whatsoever of being arbitrarily detained.”