Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Yet Another American Held in North Korea

Had you heard about this?

Apparently, yet another American is being detained in North Korea.  This time, it's Ohio resident Jeffrey Fowle, a 56-year-old husband and father of three.  He's being accused by the North Koreans of violating the terms of his tourist visa by trying to proselytize in the atheistic nation.

North Koreans say Fowle left a Bible in his hotel room,* which obviously, would be a big no-no in that oppressive country.  Nevertheless, it's unclear if he left it out in the open, or in a drawer, or in his suitcase, or whether he then checked out of his room, or had merely left the room at some point during his stay.  If he hadn't yet checked out, and had simply left his hotel room to go on a tour, like tourists do, and expected to return to the room, it's entirely possible that even if Fowle had left his Bible out in plain sight, and the housekeeping staff saw it, his could have been an honest mistake.

Granted, being an American in North Korea, it would be hard to understand how Fowle could have simply forgotten that his presence in such a closed country meant his every moves were being watched and double-checked.  It's unlikely even the most adventurous and free-spirited world explorer could have become complacent, and let his guard down while in a place like North Korea.

Ostensibly, according to a lawyer hired by Fowle's family back in Ohio, he really is simply an adventuresome tourist who was drawn to the reclusive dictatorship because he "loves the adventure of experiencing different cultures and seeing new places."

Sounds a little hokey, perhaps, considering that Fowle's wife apparently doesn't work outside the home, and is afraid his employment benefits are going to run out before he's released.  The family's lawyer is petitioning the North Korean government for clemency based on the financial hardships Fowle's family faces if he's held much longer.

On the one hand, North Korea's suspicions sound logical, since in their country, it must strike them as bizarre for a capitalist to be so cavalier about his family as to embark upon such a trip with a Bible, of all things.  Perhaps they're already trying to figure out how he got one into their country to begin with!

Yet, on the other hand, regardless of Fowle's intentions, and even if this was a sloppy attempt at getting God's Word into the hands of ordinary North Koreans, his detention represents yet another instance of North Koreans not only fighting a losing battle against illicit propaganda against their government - since they consider virtually anything that doesn't support their regime to be treasonous.  It's a blatant reminder that religious freedom does not exist in their country.

We Westerners get upset when a woman gets arrested and charged with capital punishment in Sudan, but we have a hard time sustaining our outrage when somebody like Kenneth Bae languishes in North Korean prisons as his health fades.  Remember Kenneth Bae?  The American businessman who's been held by North Korea for two years now?  Most Americans have never heard his name.  Why is that?

Hopefully, Fowle will be released soon, as well as Bae.  And yet another American, a young Californian named Matthew Todd Miller, who's been detained in North Korea since this past April, and is awaiting trial there on unknown charges.

Because of North Korea's notorious reputation, when Westerners hear about Americans being captured there, we tend to scoff and belittle their predicament.  Hey, it's no secret how ruthless the government is in secretive North Korea, so if you're going to risk a trip there, you've gotta be open to the nastiest of contingencies.  Right?

Yes, that's right.  But right now, we don't know the full stories regarding the reasons Fowle, Bae, and Miller are being held.  The problem with North Korea's stance is that they're so untrustworthy, nobody outside their borders believes their side of things, so their credibility is nil.  But even if the North Koreans are correct, and these three American guests have perpetrated vile acts against their host country, don't they deserve adequate representation and fair trials?

Of course they do.  Better yet, if the North Koreans have simply trumped up charges against these three men, all three of them should be simply released.

But what do you think the chances of that happening will be - especially if we Americans treat their plight with ambivalence?

Update 10/23/14:  Jeffrey Fowle has been released from North Korean custody and is back home in Miamisburg, Ohio.

Update 9/14/14:  Matthew Miller has been both charged and sentenced, according to CNN.

* UPDATE 9/1/14:  CNN was granted surprise access to visit the three Americans in North Korea; their report is here.

* UPDATE 8/14/14:  World magazine is reporting that the Bible in question was allegedly left behind at a nightclub in Chongjin, a coastal city in the northeastern part of North Korea.

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