By Jon Herskovitz
American Jeffrey Fowle returned to his home in southern Ohio on Wednesday, with his lawyer saying he was in good health after a nearly half-year detention in reclusive North Korea.
Fowle, 56, had been one of three Americans held by Pyongyang, which typically has tried to use the release of foreign captives as a way to build domestic political support for its leaders.
“Jeff would like you to know that he was treated well by the government of the DPRK and that he’s currently in good health,” lawyer Timothy Tepe said in comments broadcast live by Dayton, Ohio-based television station WDTN. Fowle, dressed in a brown jacket, was flanked by his wife and children as he stood near Tepe, but did not speak.
Fowle needs time to adjust to his life back home in a Dayton suburb before addressing the media about his ordeal, Tepe said, adding that the family wanted to offer its thanks to the US State Department, the Embassy of Sweden and others for securing his release.
North Korea, where health problems around young leader Kim Jong Un have raised question about his grip on power, tried to show that the release came after pleading from Washington.
“Kim Jong Un, first chairman of the National Defense Commission of the DPRK, took such a special measure as setting free Jeffrey Edward Fowle, U.S. criminal, taking into consideration the repeated requests of US President Obama,” its official KCNA news agency said. The North’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
He was freed on Tuesday and flown from Pyongyang on a US government plane, without any quid pro quo, US Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Fowle was arrested in May for leaving a Bible at a sailor’s club in the North Korean city of Chongjin, where he was traveling as a tourist.
The isolated state, which tries to portray the Kim family that has ruled it for more than 60 years as demigods, is particularly sensitive to religious proselytizing.
The White House on Tuesday said the United States welcomed the release of Fowle, a street repair worker, but pressed Pyongyang to free the two remaining Americans.
The longest to be held by North Korea is Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American missionary arrested in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor.
Matthew Miller, an American held in North Korea since April for “hostile acts,” in September began a six-year hard labor sentence that he said involved farm work and isolation, according to media reports.
US officials have given no details on the negotiations that led to Fowle’s release, or to speculate why Pyongyang freed him in case it jeopardized talks over Bae and Miller.
The US State Department on Tuesday said the release was facilitated by diplomats from Sweden, which has an embassy in Pyongyang and acts as a “protecting power” for Washington.
Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the University of California in San Diego, said the move to free Fowle was likely part of an effort by Pyongyang to show it was “reasonable”.
“North Korea is currently engaged in a very complex charm offensive on many fronts,” said Haggard, citing Pyongyang’s discussions with Japan on the fate of Japanese citizens abducted decades ago, as well as planned talks with South Korea despite a recent series of border altercations.